April 7, 2012 – 1400 GMT
Aston Villa and Alex McLeish isn’t a happy pairing. The former Birmingham City manager has had a torrid time at Villa Park, having been criticized for playing a cautious (read boring) brand of football at the Midlands club. Villa are currently a mere 5 points above the relegation zone and are about two weeks away from being dragged into the relegation fight if results don’t improve.
Fortunately, for McLeish, the media and the football world, in general, aren’t going to be focusing their energies on him. Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool are perhaps, the most talked about club in England today and have been the focus of the English media throughout the season for the wrong reasons. Six defeats in seven games is the club’s worst run in the league since 1953-54 and although the majority aren’t calling for his head just yet, another couple of defeats might result in an unceremonious exit from a place where he holds the status of a legend.
If a defeat to Newcastle wasn’t enough to pile on the misery for Dalglish, Reina’s headbutt and Andy Carroll’s petulance escalated his problems and has raised serious concerns of a lack of dressing room unity and belief in ‘project Liverpool’. All of Liverpool’s new signings have performed below par this season, including Jose Enrique, whose general reliable standards at the start of the season have deteriorated in recent months. He suffered the humiliation of playing in goal last time out against the football club he had left in search for greater success at Liverpool.
While Liverpool are one big mess, Aston Villa aren’t far behind. Under Gerard Houllier, there were glimpses of Villa’s youth shining last season but they haven’t kicked on to greater things just yet. After Young and Downing left for greener pastures, Villa have struggled to replicate their quick, exciting style of football; often relying solely on Agbonlahor to bail them out, especially in the absence of an injured Darren Bent.
Both Villa and Liverpool have struggled to score goals this season, scoring an abysmal 33 and 36 goals in the league, respectively. Both teams have also won only 1 of their last six games. And finally, both managers are under immense pressure to take their respective clubs to a position befitting their stature. Who will triumph at Anfield?
Dalglish will be facing a huge dilemma as far as team selection goes. With an FA Cup semi-final against Merseyside rivals Everton in a week from Saturday, he would ideally have liked to rest his main players. But does he now have the liberty to risk a record of seven defeats in eight to prepare for the FA Cup? Here is where Dalglish faces what you can term as the “confidence-fatigue” dilemma.
He can either go with a full strength team hoping to find confidence and thus, momentum heading into Liverpool’s biggest game of the season, or he could rest players since he has been harping on about the ‘fatigue’ factor. Lucas Leiva and Charlie Adam are ruled out, while Daniel Agger, Martin Kelly and Glen Johnson are unlikely to be passed fit to play any part.
After 183 consecutive appearances for the club, Jose Reina is suspended for the match, which means former Roma goalkeeper Alexander Doni is going to take his place in goal. Sebastian Coates may step in for Jamie Carragher, alongside Martin Skrtel, with John Flanagan and Jose Enrique flanking the two.
Steven Gerrard, who has been off his game lately, will start in the centre of midfield with Spearing. Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson could also see a return to the line-up after exploring the bench at The Sports Direct Arena.
Luis Suarez will start, but who his partner will be is anybody’s guess. If you remember Craig Bellamy’s performance against Manchester City in the League Cup, when he was playing alone up front, it makes you wonder why Dalglish doesn’t experiment with the partnership of Suarez and Bellamy. Raheem Sterling and Jonjo Shelvey are expected to get some game time, as well.
Liverpool will rely on Suarez’s adventurous runs down both channels and Downing’s directness may help seek out Carroll, but it is imperative that Gerrard joins up in attack with his late runs like he did against Everton. Don’t bet against Dalglish innovating a bizarre formation, though.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-4-2): Doni; Flanagan, Coates, Skrtel, Enrique; Henderson, Spearing, Gerrard, Downing; Carroll, Suarez
Aston Villa are suffering from major injury problems and have been recently hit with terrible news of Stiliyan Petrov’s illness, and possible subsequent retirement. Fabien Delph, Richard Dunne, Darren Bent and Ciaran Clark are unavailable due to injuries, while Carlos Cuellar joined that list in the last match.
Charles N’Zogbia and Alan Hutton have an outside chance of being fit for the game, but are unlikely to make it. The overall Villa side will be a relatively young and inexperienced team. Andres Weimann is likely to start alone upfront, while newly appointed skipper Agbonlahor will give him support through the left wing. Marc Albrighton will start on the right flank, with the trio of Chris Herd, Barry Bannan and Stephen Ireland packing the midfield in the centre.
Stephen Warnock will start as left back against his old club, while Eric Lichaj is expected to start in the absence of Alan Hutton. James Collins and Nathan Baker will once again make up a centre of defence that usually struggles to cope with direct corners.
Playing primarily with a defensive mindset, Alex McLeish will rely heavily on wingers Agbonlahor and Albrighton to tear down the flanks. Wigan’s Shaun Maloney exposed the gap between Liverpool’s midfield and defense at Anfield last time out, and the crafty Stephen Ireland will be given a similar job to do.
Villa fans would be hoping to see a better away performance than they witnessed at the Emirates Stadium, where they kept an abysmal 28% possession and only took a single shot at goal, which was off target.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-4-1-1): Given; Lihaj, Collins, Baker, Warnock; Albrighton, Bannan, Herd, Agbonlahor; Ireland; Weimann
Key Match Facts
- This is Liverpool’s worst run of results since 1953-54.
- Jose Reina will miss his first game after 183 consecutive appearances in the League.
- Liverpool have only won 5 of their 15 games at Anfield this season; their worst record since 1953-54.
- Villa have lost only two of their nine Premier League games.
- Villa have conceded more goals from corners than any other side this season (13), while Liverpool have taken more corners than any other side (255).
TheHardTackle’s Player to Watch Out For
Luis Suarez (Liverpool)
It is very hard to choose a player that is expected to dazzle from the two teams under consideration. But going by the default option, Luis Suarez would be that player.
The Liverpool striker is the best source of creativity in the team and when he receives the ball at the edge of the box, you almost anticipate a piece of magic coming up. Aston Villa is likely to sit deep, which is a dangerous game to play against Suarez.
Liverpool 2-1 Aston Villa
A victory for Liverpool has to come eventually and Villa might just be the perfect non-threatening opponents for the Reds to finally pick up 3 points. If Alex McLeish decides to uncharacteristically attack the opposition, the result may be different.
TheHardTackle’s Blast From The Past