Liverpool vs. Aston Villa Preview: Picking a Reds Starting XI to Beat Villa
The stakes are high at Villa Park on Sunday: Time is running out both for hosts Aston Villa to secure Premier League safety, and for Liverpool to launch a final run at the European places for next season.
For Liverpool, three straight morale-boosting league victories against Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Tottenham Hotspur were dampened by a comprehensive 1-3 loss at Southampton before the international break.
Brendan Rodgers will be well aware of the threat that Villa pose on the counterattack: Powerhouse striker Christian Benteke tore Liverpool apart almost single-handedly as Villa beat the Reds 3-1 at Anfield back in December.
So how should Liverpool approach another tricky away tie? Here is our starting XI, in a 4-2-3-1, for the Reds this Sunday. Let us know your thoughts below.
Goalkeeper: Pepe Reina
It’s been a personally satisfying season for No. 2 keeper Brad Jones, as he’s recently said (via ESPNFC), but with first-choice Pepe Reina fit again, there is no question that the Spanish custodian should make an immediate return to the Liverpool goal.
Right-Back: Glen Johnson
Having started off the season fantastically, Glen Johnson’s form has dipped of late, and he's put in several unconvincing shifts at right-back recently—he struggled to contain the Spurs attack and the Southampton counterattack in consecutive weeks.
Against an in-form Gabby Agbonlahor currently taking up a left-wing position, Johnson will need to mind his forward runs and keep his eyes on the equally pacy Agbonlahor, who will be a key component of the Villa forward line.
At the passionate Villa Park and with a win needed, perhaps it would be asking too much for a return to the starting lineup for Andre Wisdom.
Left-Back: Jose Enrique
Jose Enrique as Liverpool’s left-back has attracted much debate on whether he is one of the league’s best full-backs or an overrated player.
Regardless of his polarizing displays and form, his main attributes are speed and physique in defence, both of which will be needed against Andreas Weimann, one of the surprise breakout stars of the season and Aston Villa goalscorers at Anfield in the reverse fixture in December.
Recently linked with Liverpool (via Metro), Weimann has become a crowd favorite at Aston Villa due to his energetic displays, canny goalscoring instinct and immense work rate, which have become integral in Villa’s fight for Premier League survival, and he will begin Sunday’s match on the right-hand side, complementing Christian Benteke in attack.
Much like Glen Johnson on the right, Enrique will need to keep his attentions on Weimann’s in-field runs.
Center-Back: Jamie Carragher
Jamie Carragher’s return to the first team came as suddenly as Martin Skrtel was dropped, but Brendan Rodgers restored Skrtel to the starting lineup against Southampton and was promptly rewarded with a disastrous defensive performance.
Which means Carragher must once again heed Liverpool’s call and marshal a nervy defence.
Restoring Carragher also makes sense from a tactical point of view: The high line Liverpool adopted at Anfield in December allowed the Reds to dominate possession but made the defence extremely open to a quick Villa counterattack, spearheaded by the imposing Benteke and supported by the enthusiastic Weimann.
Carragher’s recent inclusion has seen the back line moved further back, perhaps in compensation of his waning pace, but as a consequence this allows Carragher to make best use of his strength and experience against a raw Benteke.
It's exactly the kind of situation that Carragher has faced over the years.
Center-Back: Daniel Agger
Seemingly in contrast to Rodgers’ philosophy of dominating possession, Liverpool have introduced a dynamic hybrid to their play in recent weeks, receding in possession statistics but making it count by scoring goals.
It’s not been the best of seasons for Daniel Agger in terms of defensive performances, but his ball retention and passing from the defence will be required against a Villa team fighting against relegation.
While Benteke destroyed the Liverpool defence in December, an equally dangerous threat is the aforementioned Weimann, who has developed a handy habit of picking up locations inside the penalty area and a knack for hitting the back of the net.
As Weimann wanders infield and outside the area manned by Jose Enrique and with Jamie Carragher’s attentions presumably occupied by Benteke, Agger will need to track the runs of Villa’s new Austrian starlet.
Defensive Midfielder: Lucas
Just as Skrtel’s return against Southampton ended in disaster, Joe Allen’s selection in place of Lucas in the heart of the Liverpool midfield saw him replaced by Lucas himself after the first half, such was the non-impact that Allen had on the game.
Not that Lucas’ return instantly shored up the defence, however: The Saints’ third goal, where Jay Rodriguez was allowed to run unchecked through the Liverpool half and into the box, was a glaring example of Lucas’ failure to return to top defensive form as of yet.
But Lucas is, at present, Liverpool’s only decent option in the defensive midfield position, and thus should be retained at Villa, where he will be required to exert more of a presence defending against a hardworking midfield and attack.
Central Midfielder: Steven Gerrard
With eight goals and nine assists in the Premier League, Steven Gerrard has silenced those critics who were rushing to label him as “past it” during the early months of the season.
He has been revitalized in a deeper playmaking role and will continue to lead and drive his team on by orchestrating the midfield.
There is also the small matter of Gerrard having scored 10 goals against Aston Villa in his career—and that's more than against any other opponent in his Premier League career (via the Mirror).
Right Forward: Stewart Downing
By now, it’s common knowledge that Stewart Downing has revitalized his Anfield career and has found a regular position on the right wing, which he made his own during his time at Aston Villa.
Even just considering the tendency of footballers to score against their former clubs, Downing should play on Sunday.
But with a newfound attacking prowess and defensive work rate, Downing is our undisputed choice on the right against the threat of Gabby Agbonlahor on the Villa left.
Left Forward: Jordan Henderson
It’s been an excellent few weeks for Philippe Coutinho since joining Liverpool from Internazionale in the January transfer window, but for Sunday we’ve opted to leave him out in favor of the much-improving and ever-hardworking Jordan Henderson, who has started from a left-leaning position in the attacking midfield this season.
Rodgers recently gave Henderson a public boost by stating his faith in the former Sunderland prospect (via Liverpool Echo), and selecting him in such a crucial game on Sunday could see his decision pay dividends.
Just as we went for Downing to help Glen Johnson with Agbonlahor’s counterattacking threat on the Liverpool right, we look to Henderson to add an extra presence in the midfield to stifle Andreas Weimann’s runs and goalscoring threat.
We saw from the Southampton loss that the lack of physical presence and work rate in the Liverpool midfield was a major problem; reinstating a confident and more assertive Henderson will help address this issue.
Second Striker: Luis Suarez
They say attack is the first line of defence, and there is no finer embodiment of this principle than Luis Suarez, who not only does the scoring part but also puts in a mean shift in the Liverpool forward line, pressurizing opposing defenders to great effect.
In Daniel Sturridge’s absence from the first team due to injury, Suarez showed great form leading the line once again for the Reds, but he returns to a second striker position in our lineup so Liverpool can start their attacks from the midfield area.
Downing and Henderson’s selections on the forward flanks perhaps indicate a more conservative approach to Villa’s counterattacking game, but Suarez’s presence closer to the midfield will help Liverpool’s attack just as much as it will their midfield.
Striker: Daniel Sturridge
Against Spurs and Southampton in consecutive weeks, Daniel Sturridge perhaps showed the worse sides to his game as he exhibited more selfishness than individual inspiration, and more frustrating final balls than brilliant touches.
Nevertheless, the manner in which he burst onto the Liverpool scene following his January transfer from Chelsea provides encouraging signs for one of the most talented English forwards at the moment, and for this reason alone Sturridge deserves a run of games as Liverpool’s starting lone striker.
His teammates, manager and fans will hope that a first international goal for England and the international break of just under two weeks will have launched Sturridge back into his exciting pre-injury form.
If all goes well, Sturridge’s presence alone will be enough to trouble a testy Villa back line, which will grant the Liverpool midfield license to pour forward.