17 April 2015

Liverpool v Aston Villa 04.19.15

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 01.17.15
0-1 Villa (h) 09.13.14
2-2 (h) 1.18.14
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.24.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Newcastle (h); 1-0 Blackburn (a); 1-4 Arsenal (a)
Aston Villa: 1-0 Spurs (a); 3-3 QPR (h); 1-3 United (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-0 Blackburn (a); 0-0 Blackburn (h); 2-1 Palace (a); 2-1 Bolton (a); 0-0 Bolton (h); 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Aston Villa: 2-0 West Brom (h); 2-1 Leicester (h); 2-1 Bournemouth (h); 1-0 Blackpool (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Sterling 11; Gerrard 10; Henderson 7; Coutinho 6; Lallana, Sturridge 5; Balotelli 4; Lambert, Markovic 3; Moreno 2; Allen, Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Suso 1
Aston Villa: Benteke 11; Agbonlahor 6; Weimann 4; Sinclair 3; Bacuna, Carles Gil, Clark, Cole, Delph, Hutton, Okore 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Lovren
Johnson Henderson Allen Moreno
Markovic Coutinho Sterling

Skrtel's back, Gerrard's back. Sturridge and Lallana are probably still injured. Jordon Ibe remains cup-tied. Now that Skrtel's back, now that Liverpool has more than one or two center-backs available (in this equation, I'm counting Toure and Lovren as half a center-back each, I guess), will the side revert to the 3-4-3 or stick with the 4-3-3 we've seen for the last two and a half matches?

It'd be a lot easier to guess the 3-4-3 were Ibe available. Rusty after returning from injury against Newcastle, he's still Liverpool's best option at the position. But he's unavailable. Sterling has to play in attack, and Markovic might as well. So Liverpool can push Johnson into the role, shunt Henderson out wide so Gerrard or Lucas could play in midfield, or hand an unlikely start to Manquillo or Flanagan.

Gerrard's return is the other elephant in the room. Is there any room for sentimentality? Start him in midfield, or in attack, or use him as a substitute? I honestly have no idea. I personally wouldn't do the first option, and would lean towards the substitute option, but none are an easy decision. It's the admittedly fading club captain in a Wembley semifinal. If there's a time and place for sentimentality, it might well be tomorrow. It doesn't hurt that he's scored more goals against Villa (13) than any other side.

Or it's all moot and we see the same formation we saw against Newcastle, with Skrtel at center-back, Can at right-back, Markovic or Gerrard for Ibe, and/or possibly Gerrard for Lucas.

Regardless of 3-4-3 or 4-3-3, regardless of the other personnel choices, I'd like to see Coutinho reprise his role as a false nine, with Sterling and either Markovic or Gerrard on the opposite side. It worked well in creating space, in pulling Newcastle's center-backs out of position, and there's a reasonable assumption it could do the same against Villa.

Aston Villa. Perpetually a bane to Liverpool: this season's 1-0 loss at Anfield, last season's 2-2 draw at Anfield and narrow 1-0 away win, the humiliating 3-1 loss at Villa in December 2012. Managed by Tim Sherwood – Tactics Tim! – a perpetual source of amusement, beaten 0-4 in his only meeting against Liverpool.

Carlos Sanchez is unavailable through suspension. Clark, Hutton, Herd, Senderos, and Cissokho will range from "probably out" to "out injured." Agbonlahor and Carles Gil will be late decisions, but both Westwood and Sinclair should be fit.

If Westwood and Sinclair are risked, the most likely Villa XI seems to be Guzan; Bacuna, Vlaar, Baker, Richardson; Cleverley, Westwood, Delph; Sinclair; Weimann, Benteke. Villa have played a 4-4-2 diamond in their last two matches, but could switch to 4-5-1, with Sinclair on the left and Weimann, N'Zogbia or Joe Cole on the right if Agbonlahor's not available to start. But given how important he is to Villa, you'd expect Agbonlahor to be used if at all possible.

Guzan is the better keeper, but Shay Given has been the usual keeper during this FA Cup run. Baker came on after Clark's injury last week, but Okore could be preferred at center-back along with Vlaar. Richardson can play at left-back or in midfield. 19-year-old Jack Grealish could make his third consecutive start anywhere in an attacking midfield role, whether central or on the flank. Tim Sherwood remains Tim Sherwood; we can't predict what he's going to do because I doubt he knows what he's going to do. Since joining Villa, they've played 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 4-Diamond-2, and 4-3-2-1. Sherwood will "go for it." His team will try to attack, featuring a lot of long balls to Benteke, try to press a bit, probably be relatively organized in defense, and probably not organized in midfield. As to formation or personnel, your guess really is as good as mine. And as good as Tim's.

Regardless, Aston Villa still have Christian Benteke. With eight goals and two assists in the nine matches he's played since Sherwood became manager. Which is more goals than any Liverpool player except Sterling and Gerrard have scored this season. With three goals in his five matches against Liverpool, albeit none in his last three (although it's worth mentioning he had a game-high five shots in Liverpool's 2-0 win in January).

This will be Aston Villa's first FA Cup match away from home, beating Blackpool, Bournemouth, Leicester and West Brom on route to Wembley. Liverpool were unable to win and unable to score in their two FA Cup home matches, and are still somehow in this position anyway.

But for all of Liverpool's defensive improvement since the New Year, Liverpool have kept a clean sheet in just one of their four away FA Cup matches, last round at Blackburn. Aston Villa have scored in eight goals in Tim Sherwood's 10 matches.

It goes without saying that anything can happen in the cups, at Wembley. It's up to Liverpool to ensure the expected takes place.

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