By Christopher Boulay
Life hasn’t been easy for Liverpool lately, but an opportunity to recover some pride and build up some steam before the FA Cup semifinal next weekend awaits.
Liverpool hosts Aston Villa at Anfield on Saturday, and to say that the club needs all three points is an understatement. Nothing has been going right for the Reds, and it began to boil over during last weekend’s loss to Newcastle. Andy Carroll stormed off into the locker room after being subbed off in the second half by manager Kenny Dalglish, and Pepe Reina was sent off for nearly headbutting James Perch.
The 2-0 loss stung, and it mounted further pressure on Dalglish, as well as the rest of the squad. With the club returning home with its collective tail in between its legs, it is vital for the squad to find something positive to grab onto. With the Birmingham club also reeling, it could be the perfect opportunity for Liverpool to make up for lost time.
Dalglish’s men may have Glen Johnson, Martin Kelly and Daniel Agger back in the squad after injury spells, but the manager mentioned this week that Agger is leading the way on the road to recovery. To have any of the defenders back in the starting 11 will be massive for the side, which has gone from not only being unable to score, but also unable to stop conceding. Since defeating Everton 3-0 last month, the club has been outscored 7-3 by the likes of Newcastle, Wigan and QPR.
Starting in the midfield could be anyone’s guess, as there seems to be no combination that has proven to work. Other than Steven Gerrard, any three players could be slotted in. The decision last week was to start Carroll up front with Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy, but the 4-3-3 did not have much of a positive effect beyond the early parts of the first half. While it may be too early for Raheem Sterling to get a start, Jay Spearing may see the pitch again, along with Stewart Downing and Maxi. Jonjo Shelvey should also be in the mix, as he has been seldom-used despite his notable upside.
There will also be a new goalkeeper for the club, as Reina begins serving his ban for his infraction last week. Either Doni or Brad Jones will start in net, but both are serviceable and should fill in nicely. With Doni’s history of sitting on the bench behind Reina for most of the season, it is likely he will get the nod.
Aston Villa won’t be easy, as the West Midlands side is a dangerous one, especially with the prospect of Charles N’Zogbia returning to the lineup to help out Gabriel Agbonlahor. With it a loss or two away from being in the thick of the relegation battle, Villa will be an extremely tough side to deal with, especially with Liverpool’s subpar play in recent weeks. Though N’Zogbia is expected to return, Andreas Weimann may remain out through injury, which could stunt the club’s attack. It also would not be out of the realm of possibility for Premier League veteran Emile Heskey to see action, especially if Weimann cannot play. Villa had a spirited effort against Chelsea last weekend, but ultimately came up short.
The club was shaken last week when captain Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with acute leukemia. If the players needed a motivation factor beyond seeing its relegation rivals catch up to them, this is it. No fan wants to see a player from any club develop any sort of illness, and the entire footballing world got behind Petrov when his affliction was announced. His condition and well-being is something that will likely be on the minds of everyone in Anfield during the match.
Liverpool defeated the Villains 2-0 back in December, and anything less than recording a double is considered by most to be unacceptable. However, what is unacceptable and what is actually occurring have been two things that are near interchangeable in recent months. If Liverpool is going to finish the season strong, and avoid dropping down the table further, it must start soon. The Reds are only six points ahead of West Brom in 14th. If Villa wins at Anfield, it will trail Liverpool by the same amount.
This is the time of the season where Liverpool shows what it is made of. Time is short.
Liverpool v Aston Villa
When: Sunday, April 7th 1000 EST/ 1500 GMT
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Premier League Table: Liverpool 8th (42 points), Aston Villa 15th (33 points)
Last Premier League Match: Newcastle 2-0 Liverpool, Aston Villa 2-4 Chelsea
Projected Aston Villa Starting 11:
DEF: Hutton, Collins, Lichaj, Baker
MF: Ireland, Bannan, Albrighton, Gardner
FW: Agbonlahor, N’Zogbia
Subs from: Guzan, Williams, Warnock, Baker, Johnson, Carruthers, Grealish, Heskey, Weimann
Projected Liverpool Starting 11:
DEF: Enrique, Agger*, Skrtel, Flanagan
MF: Downing, Gerrard, Spearing, Maxi
FW: Suarez, Carroll
Subs from: Jones, Johnson*, Carragher, Kelly*, Coates, Wilson, Coady, Wisdom, Shelvey, Henderson, Bellamy, Eccleston, Sterling
*= Late Fitness Tests