Premier Preview: Liverpool v Aston Villa
Without any European, domestic cup or international action this past midweek the Liverpool squad have had a whole week to prepare for their next fixture; Aston Villa's visit to Anfield on Saturday afternoon.
This is an occurrence which has been almost as rare this season as the back-to-back league victories that the Reds secured with Sunday's entertaining 3-2 triumph over West Ham United. Take the Europa League win over Udinese into account and Brendan Rodgers' side secured three triumphs in nine days to measurably boost confidence and optimism around the club.
With the league table so tight Liverpool are now only four points behind fourth placed Everton despite still languishing in a lowly-looking 10th. Saturday's visitors are enduring another difficult campaign and can be currently found in 16th with only 15 points from their 16 games played.
Liverpool full-back Jose Enrique speaking to Liverpoolfc.com: "We have beaten good teams this season. The teams at the top have been losing a lot of games, so we have a chance [of finishing in the top four].
"We're just four points behind the Champions League places and we have a big chance to be there before January finishes.
"We have to take it step-by-step. We are close now and have a good chance. We have two games at home now and we'll try to win them both.
"Then if we can get some good players in the transfer window, maybe we can do something."
Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert after his side secured a place in the League Cup semi-final by defeating Norwich City in midweek: "We've come through a really hard run with the two Manchester clubs and Arsenal in successive matches.
"That's really, really demanding with a young team. They need a bit of help but, if you can give them time and keep that collective spirit with the crowd we've got, they'll drive us on.
"The club has had a lot of heartache for the past two years or so and fans haven't had a lot to shout about, but the semi-final really gives them something to look forward to in the New Year and is brilliant for the club." (quotes published by the Scotsman.com)
Liverpool Team News:
The big team news is obviously the return from suspension of the club's top scorer Luis Suarez. In all competitions this season the mercurial Uruguayan has 13 goals to his name; more than three times as many as Jonjo Shelvey who is the club's second highest scorer with 4. Despite battling gamely in an unfamiliar striking role, as a result of Suarez's absence, Shelvey could easily be the man to make way for his return. Elsewhere, Spanish full-back Jose Enrique is a big doubt after feeling tightness in his hamstring during the victory over West Ham United on Sunday. His replacement, Joe Cole, impressed and scored after entering the fray after 27 minutes but is unlikely to be rewarded with anything more than another outing from the bench. That is unless Rodgers decides to remove Stewart Downing, or play him at left-back should Enrique be ruled out. Injured duo Fabio Borini (broken foot) and Martin Kelly (cruciate knee ligament) are aiming for mid-January and March returns respectively.
Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Downing, Lucas, Allen, Gerrard, Sterling, Shelvey, Suarez.
Player to watch: Steven Gerrard
Many column inches have been filled of late by conjecture over whether or not Gerrard is on the wane. Why it is true he has yet to consistently hit the heights of previous campaigns this term, the club legend still has plenty more to offer. With Villa likely to come to Anfield with one eye firmly on defending, this fixture could be tailor made for the 32-year-old's thumping shots from distance and surging runs into the box. Whether or not he is dictating play in the manner of old is questionable but his sheer presence on the team sheet still acts as a catalyst for reassurance and belief amongst fans and players alike. If Liverpool do manage an unlikely top four finish this season it is almost a certainty that it will have been largely inspired by Gerrard hitting top form, such is his importance to, and influence on, the team.
Aston Villa Team News:
England striker Darren Bent, who made his first start in over a month during the League Cup win over Norwich City on Tuesday night, is likely to be absent courtesy of a hamstring problem. Others who are doubtful are captain Ron Vlaar who continues to battle a calf injury and fellow defender Joe Bennett who has been troubled of late by a knee issue. Charles N'Zogbia is pushing for a start after making his comeback from a six-week absence against the Canaries whilst left-back Edna Stevens is close to returning form an ankle problem. Ashley Westwood is available again after being cup-tied in midweek but club stalwart Richard Dunne (groin) is still out long-term as is midfielder Gary Gardner who is likely to miss the whole season after anterior cruciate ligament surgery. Another absentee, Stiliyan Petrov, continues to battle against acute leukaemia whilst commendably helping to raise awareness and funds for others affected by the illness. Scotland international right-back Alan Hutton is currently on an emergency loan to Nottingham Forest.
Guzan, Clark, Lichaj, Baker, Lowton, Westwood, Bannan, Herd, Agbonlahor, Weimann, Benteke.
Player to watch: Christian Benteke
Not a great deal was known about the 22-year-old when Villa paid Genk £7m for his services during the summer but that has all changed now. The Belgium international has impressed with his power, strength and ability to lead the line on his own. With 6 goals and a number of assists already to his name, Benteke is earning plenty of admirers especially given the fact he is playing in a generally defensive minded team that struggles for creativity. If he continues to develop, Villa will find it difficult to keep hold of a player who also has 4 goals in 9 caps for his country.
Match Facts & Stats
• Liverpool and Aston Villa have met 182 times in their respective histories and the Reds hold the upper hand with 89 wins to Villa's 54 and 39 draws. Liverpool have scored a total of 322 goals compared to a tally of 255 for the Villians.
• Liverpool are unbeaten in their last 4 Premier League home games (winning 3); a big turnaround after winning just 3 of the previous 15. The side has also kept 4 clean sheets in their last 5 home league matches.
• Villa have won just 1 of their last 16 Premier League away games (W1 D6 L9) and historically successful visits to Anfield are equally baron with just 1 of their last 10 league visits resulting in victory (W1 D3 L6).
• After 43 appearances Stewart Downing is still yet to score in the Premier League for Liverpool. His last goal was a winner against the Reds for Villa in May 2011.
• Both sides have changed managers regularly in recent seasons. In fact it will be the fourth Premier League match in a row at Anfield where both sides have a different man in charge (Benitez v O'Neill, Hodgson v Houllier, Dalglish v McLeish and now Rodgers v Lambert).
Neil Swarbrick is the referee appointed to officiate this Barclays Premier League fixture. The 42-year-old from Preston, who is in his second year as a member of the Select Group of Referees, has shown 43 yellow and 0 red cards in 12 games so far this season. Liverpool are yet to encounter Swarbrick during the 2012-13 campaign but Aston Villa have and that match resulted in a 2-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in October. Lee Mason is the fourth official and Swarbrick will be assisted on the field by P Kirkup and D C Richards.
All indications point to a home win but there have been a number of false dawns over the past few years and subsequently few fans will be getting carried away with the recent good run. A lot could depend on how Villa approach the game and buoyed by a decent run of their own they may not be as negative as many anticipate. Hopefully so as this will create additional space for us in the final third and this could be crucial as in the past breaking down belligerent opposition has not been a Reds speciality, especially at Anfield. With Suarez back and confidence high I thoroughly anticipate a home win which will hopefully be the precursor to a fruitful festive period and a rise up the table. Vital Liverpool predicts a 2-0 LFC win.
Liverpool - Premier League v Fulham at Anfield on Saturday 22nd December 2012, kick off 5.30pm (live on ESPN).
Aston Villa - Premier League v Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday 23rd December 2012, kick off 4.00pm (live on Sky Sports).
So that's what we think, how about you? Let us know your thoughts and predictions for the game below or vote in our poll to the right...
Click here to read our interview with an Aston Villa fan
Click here to read former Red Mark Lawrenson's prediction
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