13 February 2016

Liverpool at Aston Villa 02.14.16

9:05am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (h) 09.26.15
1-2 Villa (n; FA Cup) 04.19.15
2-0 Liverpool (a) 01.17.15
0-1 Villa (h) 09.13.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 West Ham aet (a); 2-2 Sunderland (h); 0-2 Leicester (a)
Villa: 2-0 Norwich (h); 0-2 West Ham (a); 0-4 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Firmino 6; Coutinho 5; Milner 3; Henderson, Ings, Lallana, Milner, Sturridge 2; Allen, Origi, Skrtel 1
Villa: Ayew 5; Gestede 4; Carles Gil, Lescott, Sinclair 2; Agbonlahor, Grealish, Richards 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Toure Sakho Moreno
Henderson Can Milner
Lallana Firmino Coutinho

Whoa. Liverpool are surprisingly close to fielding an honest-to-goodness first choice XI.

Lovren and Allen have short-term injuries to go with the well-remembered long-term: Ings, Gomez. Skrtel's just back in training, probably not ready to start until Thursday. Coutinho, Sturridge, and Origi are still a bit away from full match fitness.

But we're close. Closer than we've been since Klopp became manager.

That Sturridge starts, after a two-goal performance in the reverse fixture, isn't entirely out of the question, but it's easier to predict he'll be protected after playing for an hour on Tuesday given all that's come before. Ideally available off the bench, but otherwise saved for Augsburg on Thursday, isn't the worst situation.

Which seems to set up for the above 4-3-3: Henderson, Can, Milner in midfield; Lallana, Coutinho, Firmino in attack. Either Toure or Caulker will partner Sakho, along with the usual suspects at full-back. The speedy, clever triumvirate which – Sturridge aside – has been Liverpool's best attack, Henderson and Milner as runners from midfield (with Milner in his "better" position), and Can at the base. Liverpool will have lots of possession, and this front six gives Liverpool players who can carve through a packed defense, runners from midfield, crosses from full-back (albeit only to Firmino), players who can score from distance. In theory, Liverpool can play long, play close, play wide. Liverpool would have multiple options in attack.

If Coutinho (as well as Origi and Sturridge) isn't fit enough to start, it'll probably be Henderson, Can; Ibe, Lallana, Milner; Firmino. Which isn't ideal, but should still be strong enough at the league's worst team. Even if Liverpool have been failing to meet expectations in attack all season long.

Of course, there's still the elephant in the room. I doubt any outfield player who went for 120 minutes on Tuesday will start tomorrow, but Benteke again merits special mention. At least Benteke got into position to miss five or six good chances against West Ham? Still, he's clearly low on self-belief; it's been 668 minutes since he last scored. Normally, I'm all for playing players against their former club, but it's probably a recipe for disaster given Benteke's form and confidence.

As for Aston Villa. They've been better lately, but "better" is very much a relative term. Still 20th, seven points behind nineteenth and eight points from safety, but with two wins (and two draws) from the last five league matches, after going winless in the previous 19, their last (and only) league victory in 2015 this season coming on opening day.

That's more points from their last five games than Liverpool have taken.

With Jordan Ayew still suspended after a red card against West Ham, Villa's XI should look a lot like last week's. Bunn; Richards, Okore, Lescott, Cissokho; Bacuna, Gana, Westwood, Veretout; Carles Gil; Agbonalor. Grealish, Kozak, Sanchez, Hutton, Traore, and Amavi are injured; Gestede's doubtful. Agbonlahor has punished Liverpool multiple times – he absolutely loves playing against Liverpool – but I'd still rather him than Gestede, who absolutely trucked Liverpool in the reverse fixture, scoring both of Villa's goals (unsurprisingly, from crosses) and too close to a third on a couple of other occasions. Only the brilliance of Daniel Sturridge spared Liverpool's blushes. Liverpool, you may remember, remain fairly bad when defending crosses.

Villa will most likely play like a lot of opponents have played – and succeeded – against Liverpool this season. Sit deep, clog their defensive half, soak up pressure, look to counter attack. Take Villa's win over Norwich last Saturday as an example: Norwich were better for longer stretches – more possession, more shots, more shots on-target, a ton of corners – but conceded from a set play, then from a goalkeeper mistake. Conceded from the first shot on-target, conceded from an own goal. Two Villa shots on-target, two Villa goals. Liverpool are more than capable of doing similar.

So, as usual, the match will be decided by what Liverpool does. Whether Liverpool put their inevitable possession to good use, whether Liverpool can create chances and take said chances, whether Liverpool can stay secure and smart at the back. Whether we get Good Liverpool or Bad Liverpool.

That Liverpool's key attackers are finally close to fitness at least gives us more hope of seeing Good Liverpool.

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