Relegation favourites Aston Villa host out-of-form Liverpool on Sunday—a game sandwiched between the two games that see the Premier League's top four in action; Arsenal vs. Leicester City and Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur.
Liverpool have a good record at Villa Park, having won on their last four visits to the Midlands—their last defeat being on the final day of the 2010/11 season when then-Villa player Stewart Downing scored the only goal of the game.
Downing moved to Liverpool that summer but failed to continue the form that had seen him named Villa fans' Player of the Year. It's a situation that is similar to that of Christian Benteke today. The Belgian centre-forward moved to Merseyside for an eye-opening £32.5 million in the summer but has now gone 11 appearances and almost 700 minutes without a goal for the Reds.
Benteke played all four of Liverpool's FA Cup games this season—180 minutes vs. Exeter City and 210 minutes vs. West Ham United—but failed to impress. Indeed, his last FA Cup goal was against Liverpool in the semi-final last April.
Benteke's struggles in front of goal mean he is highly unlikely to start against his former side on Sunday, especially with Daniel Sturridge back for Jurgen Klopp's Reds and the form of Roberto Firmino—who has five goals in his last five league games.
This game last season saw the visitors take away a 2-0 victory, but neither of those goalscorers will be in action this time, with the duo of Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert on target 13 months ago.
The corresponding fixture earlier this season saw Sturridge making yet another injury comeback—scoring his first two goals since March in a 3-2 win for the Merseysiders. Sunday's game should provide more goals, with neither side showing defensive solidity at any stage this season.
Date: Sunday, 14 February, 2016
Time: 2.05 p.m. GMT/9.05 a.m. ET
Venue: Villa Park, Birmingham
TV Info: Sky Sports (UK) / NBCSCN (U.S.)
Villa arrive into the game in better form than Liverpool, having overturned Norwich City 2-0 last time out. Indeed, Remi Garde's side have claimed two of their three victories this season in their last six games.
Liverpool have just been knocked out of the FA Cup, are without a win in their last five games and have won just once in their last six league games—that being the dramatic late winner at Norwich City.
Won 2-0 vs. Norwich City
Lost 2-0 vs. West Ham United
Lost 4-0 vs. Manchester City (FA Cup)
Drew 0-0 vs. West Bromwich Albion
Won 2-0 vs. Wycombe Wanderers (FA Cup)
Lost 2-1 vs. West Ham United (FA Cup)
Drew 2-2 vs. Sunderland
Lost 2-0 vs. Leicester City
Drew 0-0 vs. West Ham United (FA Cup)
Lost 1-0 vs. Stoke City (League Cup)
Villa are without midfielder Jack Grealish (knee injury), while Rudy Gestede and Carlos Sanchez will be assessed after hamstring injuries (per BBC Sport). Garde is likely to stick with the same side that tasted victory last time out.
Liverpool have attacking players Sturridge, Divock Origi and Philippe Coutinho available after they made their injury comebacks against West Ham in the week, although it's unlikely Sturridge will start this game.
Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren remain sidelined in defence, meaning Kolo Toure or Steven Caulker will start alongside Mamadou Sakho. Brad Smith and Joe Allen are ruled out.
Aston Villa: Bunn, Richards, Okore, Lescott, Cissokho, Bacuna, Gueye, Westwood, Gil, Veretout, Agbonlahor.
Liverpool: Mignolet, Clyne, Toure, Sakho, Moreno, Can, Henderson, Milner, Coutinho, Lallana, Firmino.
Players to Watch
Aston Villa: Rudy Gestede
Gestede may not start against Liverpool, but he could have a big say in the outcome of this match if Liverpool's inability to defend in the air comes back to haunt them yet again.
The former Blackburn Rovers forward scored twice in the corresponding fixture at Anfield back in September—the first a tap-in from a cross, the second an absolute thunderbolt of a header.
Such aerial presence has continually plagued Liverpool in recent years, and Gestede, even as a substitute, will fancy his chances. It's for this reason that Klopp will likely introduce Caulker should Villa bring on the French forward.
Liverpool: Roberto Firmino
For all the talk of Sturridge's return from injury, it will likely be Firmino who continues to lead the Liverpool attack. Klopp isn't likely to risk Sturridge from the start after just one substitute appearance, while Firmino had the week off and is a man in form.
The Brazilian was this week named PFA fans Player of the Month for January, per Sky Sports, and has five goals and two assists in his last six league games.
Villa defence vs. LFC attack
According to WhoScored.com, Villa are weak at "defending against through ball attacks"—something that Liverpool will be looking to exploit with Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Firmino and Jordan Henderson.
With Sturridge and Benteke likely to be among Klopp's options from the bench, Villa will have their work cut out to prevent Liverpool from scoring.
And with Villa having the lowest goals-scored total in the league, they'll need to keep it tight defensively and hope to sneak a goal off a set piece if they are to have any chance of victory.
Odds (via Odds Shark)
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