10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Live Extra
Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Villa (h) 09.13.14
2-2 (h) 1.18.14
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.24.13
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.31.13
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Sunderland (a); 2-1 Wimbledon (a); 2-2 Leicester (h)
Villa: 0-1 Leicester (a); 1-0 Blackpool (h); 0-0 Palace (h)
Liverpool: Gerrard 5; Lallana, Own Goal, Sterling 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Moreno 2; Can, Johnson, Lambert, Markovic, Skrtel, Sturridge 1
Villa: Agbonlahor, Weimann 3; Benteke 2; Clark, Cole, Hutton 1
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Markovic Henderson Lucas Moreno
With Sterling back from his winter break and with Gerrard and Lallana injured (even though both are training, the latter much sooner than expected), Liverpool's line-up seems easy to predict. The same XI as against Sunderland, but with Sterling in place of Gerrard.
Liverpool's injury woes are finally easing. Gerrard and Lallana shouldn't be out for long. Sturridge is also back in training, if seemingly still a couple of weeks away. Even Johnson and Lovren are back, although I'd much rather prefer than Liverpool stick with the defense they've deployed recently.
The only other alternative is to bring Manquillo or Johnson (now that he's fit as well) in at right wing-back, shifting Markovic into one of the attacking midfielder slots, and using Sterling as the main striker rather than Borini. Maybe Balotelli or Lambert start up top rather than Borini, but I doubt it. Even if Borini was disappointing in front of goal, he was vastly more creative than the other two had been, is more mobile, and pressed better as well.
And that above XI, aside from the one change, played reasonably well at Sunderland. Sure, Liverpool's shooting was terrible and Sunderland gave Liverpool a few too many frights despite a man-disadvantage in the second half, but Liverpool were at least reasonably creative in the first half and reasonably secure in the second, and that remains progress for this Liverpool.
Tomorrow, they'll be facing a side that plays similarly – happy to concede possession, resilient in defense, low-shooting and low-scoring but still dangerous on the counter – but has given Liverpool loads more problems in the past.
Aston Villa are winless in the league since December 7, drawing three and losing three since, scoring just one goal (in a 1-1 draw against United) in those six matches. Three 0-1 losses, two 0-0 draws, one 1-1 draw. There aren't many goals in Aston Villa matches, for either side.
Since a 1-2 loss to Tottenham on November 2, Villa haven't conceded more than once in a single match. 11 league matches: seven matches where they conceded one goal, four clean sheets. That's terrifying when Liverpool are involved, a side who usually struggle to score on good days against bad defenses and always have the potential to stupidly concede.
No side has scored fewer goals than Villa, 11, and the second-worst, Sunderland, has seven more goals. Only Hull has taken fewer shots and created fewer chances, only Stoke has a worst shooting accuracy. But similar was true prior to the 1-3 loss to Villa in December 2012, a match where Liverpool had its third-highest possession totals since Rodgers became manager, played the most attacking third passes since Rodgers became manger, and took the third-most shots in a match since Rodgers became manager. And conceded three goals on counter-attacks. And only scored because of a fortunate deflection in the 87th minute with the game long since lost.
No matter Villa's scoring woes, no matter Villa's dire league form, they're still the same Aston Villa which have frustrated Liverpool in every match since Rodgers became manager. 1-3 loss, 2-1 win, 1-0 win, 2-2 draw, 0-1 loss. A deep, resilient defense and Agbonlahor, Weimann, and Benteke on the counter, although recently signed Carlos Gil could make his first appearance in place of Weimann in attack.
That set-up will assuredly be the case tomorrow, with a probable XI of Guzan; Hutton, Okore, Baker, Cissokho; Cleverley, Westwood, Delph; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor. Gil could replace Weimann, Carlos Sanchez could replace Cleverley, but the tactics will remain the same. This will be Delph's first match back after a three-match ban. Villa will be missing three important central defenders – Vlaar and Senderos through injury, Clark through suspension – which could work in Liverpool's favor, but probably won't, because Liverpool. As usual, I'm terrified of Agbonlahor, who seemingly lives for punishing Liverpool, but at least the majority of his punishing usually comes at Anfield.
If Liverpool can replicate and improve on its performance against Sunderland, Liverpool should win tomorrow. If only it were that simple. But Liverpool need to perform tomorrow. Not only do Liverpool desperately need results, any results, but tomorrow marks the end of Liverpool's "easy" festive season. The previous four matches were against the 17th, 9th, 20th, and 16th-placed sides. The next four in the league will be against the 7th, 12th (but still a Merseyside Derby), 6th, and 3rd, with League Cup semifinals against Chelsea and an FA Cup match against Bolton thrown in for good measure. Yikes.
Starting tomorrow, the next six weeks will decide whether the few positives of the last few weeks were a fluke or the beginning of something better.