Liverpool vs. Aston Villa: 5 Key Battles to Watch at Anfield
Liverpool return to Premier League action Saturday after a week of rest with a home fixture against Aston Villa, with Brendan Rodgers' men looking to string three league victories together for the first time this season.
Last week's late turnaround saw the Reds record a 3-2 win over West Ham United which, despite at times an indifferent start to the league campaign, leaves Rodgers' side just four points off a top-four spot.
Two consecutive home matches will now provide the side with a chance to close that gap further, with an important game against a resurgent Villa first up. Paul Lambert's men have struggled early in the season but are unbeaten in four now in the league, as well as having won 4-1 at Norwich City in the League Cup midweek.
Whether Liverpool's extra days of rest ahead of this fixture will be telling remains to be seen.
Here are the five key battles of the match to watch out for.
Luis Suarez vs. Ron Vlaar
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Liverpool's best player this season by a stretch has been Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez.
With 13 goals to his name in all competitions he is the Reds' top scorer, though it has been six matches since he last found the target. Having missed last week's win at West Ham, Suarez will be itching to get back to scoring ways.
Despite the impressive nature of Jonjo Shelvey's performance in his absence, Suarez will surely return to a central attacking role at Anfield.
Marshalling the Aston Villa defence and trying to repel Suarez will be Dutchman Ron Vlaar. After a mixed start Vlaar has put in some steady performances of late; since conceding five at Manchester City in mid-November the Villains have conceded just once in four games and kept three clean sheets.
Vlaar stopping Suarez from getting room to have his usual impact on games will be key if Villa are to prolong their unbeaten run.
Lucas Leiva vs. Brett Holman
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The return of Lucas Leiva has been a big boost to Liverpool to strengthen the midfield and free up Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard into more advanced roles.
As the Brazilian protects the defence and distributes the ball quickly and simply, the other two midfielders have been able to push on and help create openings in the final third, though last week against West Ham it didn't really happen for the trio for much of the game.
Presuming the same three start at home, Lucas will have the job of patrolling the entire defensive line of midfield.
Brett Holman has been one of Aston Villa's main men in the final third this season; though he has a starting position from either inside channel, he is quick to drift infield much more centrally and be heavily involved in the build-up phase.
Not shy with a shot either, Holman has scored once from 20 attempts this season and has one assist to his name.
Lucas will need to be on his game to watch the movement of the Australian in off the channels, with the Reds' full-backs likely to be pushed higher up the pitch for much of the match if Liverpool dominate possession.
Raheem Sterling vs. Eric Lichaj
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After several months in the first team in what is his full debut season, Raheem Sterling is just starting to show a few signs of tiredness or inconsistency in his game.
It is not unexpected and nor should the youngster be criticised; he needs to be managed through the busy Christmas period so that he does not suffer from too much expectations or the tough physical demands, while still ensuring Liverpool get the most quality out of him that they can.
Against West Ham he had something of an off-day, but was still quick and alert enough to be heavily involved in the Reds' best passing move of the game. This saw him exchange passes with Shelvey before threading a perfect through ball to Joe Cole to score the equalising goal.
Depending on who starts on the other side of Suarez, Sterling could be on the left or the right—but will most probably drift from side to side. When on the right flank he will be up against Eric Lichaj, Villa's left-back.
Lichaj has not had the greatest of times this season though, and Sterling can certainly get at him with some success if he is fit and focused.
As per B/R's tactical analyst Sam Tighe:
Eric Lichaj does the unenviable job of filling in wherever Aston Villa need him to depending on the current injury concerns. The right-footed right-sider is currently playing an uncomfortable 90 minutes per week at left-wing-back in Paul Lambert's 3-5-2, making that flank Villa's clear weak link. If you're looking for a marker on how poor he is—he was outfoxed by Jose Bosingwa at Loftus Road. That's really saying something.
Martin Skrtel vs. Christian Benteke
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With Darren Bent well out of favour at Aston Villa, Christian Benteke is the man who leads their striking line on a regular basis.
Benteke has three goals in the Premier League and 10 in all competitions so far, so the Reds' defence will certainly have their work cut out. Averaging 3.2 shots per game in the league is good enough to be the 11th highest out of any player, but Benteke is also a force at bringing others into the game for his side.
Two assists and 17 key passes this season shows that Liverpool's back line have to be wary not just of Benteke himself, but of those running off him.
Martin Skrtel will likely be the man assigned to closely marking the Belgian forward, and the defender should be expected to come out on top of most physical and aerial battles despite Benteke's proficiency in this area.
If Skrtel fails to get to grips with his man early on, Villa could cause Liverpool problems in the final third.
Liverpool vs. Brad Guzan
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Going off current form, games this season and quality of players, Liverpool should be expected to dominate large spells of possession in this game.
Villa will have times during the game when they are on top, as they should be confident after recent results and the Reds have not really yet put an entire top-class 90 minutes together.
When the home side are on top though, they should have the players and the game plan to breach the porous Villa defence that has conceded 15 times away from Villa Park in eight games.
After that, much depends on the finishing of the Liverpool players.
Last season this fixture was a hugely typical one of the Reds' entire campaign—they mustered 24 shots, had 70 percent possession and yet the game ended 1-1.
Chance after chance went begging, the woodwork and denied penalties were a feature of the game and the Villa goalkeeper—then Shay Given, now Brad Guzan—was in fine form to make several saves.
If Liverpool have serious aspirations of making the top four—and they should given the state and consistency of rivals this season—then they simply have to continue winning at home. Useful victories over Wigan and Southampton in the past two Anfield league games have provided a nice platform; now the three points have to continue to come against Villa and Fulham.
Brad Guzan stands in their way this time—beat him more than once and Brendan Rodgers will hope that his team will be another point or two closer to the teams at the top end of the table.