By Séamus Leonard
What a difference a save makes. Well, two saves really. Simon Mignolet’s late heroics to repel a Jonathan Walters penalty and then deny Kenwyne Jones on the follow-up gave Liverpool fans something rare to enjoy last Saturday – an opening day victory. Not since the 2008/09 season when a Fernando Torres winner put Sunderland to the sword at the Stadium of Light have the Redmen started the season on the front foot.
Of course, it could have been so different. Had new vice-captain Daniel Agger’s ridiculous handball allowed Stoke City to escape with a draw then Liverpool supporters would have spent the week in the doldrums, fearing another mediocre season of defensive errors, missed opportunities and dropped points. As it stands, however, most supporters will have been on a high, buoyed by Mignolet’s brilliance, midfielder Philippe Countinho’s genius, forward Daniel Sturridge’s finish and winger Iago Aspas’ boundless energy.
There were plenty of other aspects to be pleased about too. Midfielder Lucas Leiva looked back to his imperious best, even flying into a second-half bone-cruncher that put paid to any worries of residual effects of his two serious injury lay-offs. Defender Kolo Toure’s ability at both ends of the pitch went some, but certainly not all, of the way to easing concerns about Liverpool’s fragility and ineffectiveness at set pieces.
The full-backs came in for some criticism, but I was quite impressed by both Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson. The latter’s lack of positional awareness has long been a problem, but against Stoke he was more often than not in the right place at the right time and long may that continue. The only player who may have had reason to be disappointed with his efforts was Agger. Manager Brendan Rodgers will hope that moment of madness was a blip rather than a portent of things to come from the Danish international, who may have stayed injury free last season but was not as dependable as he had been in the past.
Full-back Aly Cissokho joined Liverpool on loan from Valencia since the opening day win at Anfield, with Rodgers hoping the former Lyon defender will provide stern competition for Enrique at left-back. There may be more comings and goings before the transfer window shuts on September 2, especially now big center-back Sebastian Coates will miss most of the season after he tore a cruciate ligament in his knee while away on international duty in Japan with Uruguay. That injury could prolong Martin Skrtel’s Liverpool career, with Rodgers unlikely to let the Slovak move to Napoli if the Ulsterman feels he is short of numbers in defense.
For Aston Villa, this game will mark its first home fixture of the season. Paul Lambert’s charges were given a daunting start to their campaign, but a 3-1 win at Arsenal followed by an unlucky 2-1 defeat at Chelsea in midweek will have the Midlands side brimming with confidence come Saturday evening.
Christian Benteke, the imposing Belgian striker, has notched three of the Villains’ four goals to date, and Rodgers will have to make efforts to prevent the former Genk man from dominating as he did at Anfield last season when Villa came away with a 3-1 win. When asked about the danger of Benteke at a pre-match press conference, Rodgers admitted that the number 20 is the “reference point” for his opponents, but quickly added that attackers Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann would have to be closely watched as well.
It is not just Villa’s attack that has impressed, however, as its midfield trio of Ashley Westwood, Fabian Delph and Karim El Ahmadi proved to be an extremely effective combination at both The Emirates and Stamford Bridge. Center-back Ciaran Clark was forced off against Chelsea after he needed five stitches for a head wound, but the young Republic of Ireland international is expected to be available for selection.
Rodgers must decide whether he will stick with the same side that performed so well last Saturday, or to take out Aspas and bring in Joe Allen to give Liverpool more numbers in midfield and make it more difficult for Villa to counter-attack.
While a win is always preferable, maybe a draw at Villa Park would prove to be a credible result against a resurgent home side. Avoiding defeat is particularly important at this juncture, especially with a home clash against Manchester United to come on Labor Day weekend. That said, Villa may suffer from fatigue as it plays a third massive game in the space of eight days. If that transpires, the introduction of speedsters Raheem Sterling and/or Jordan Ibe could swing proceedings in Liverpool’s favor in the closing stages.
If you are in the greater Boston area, you will be able to watch the match at The Phoenix Landing with LFC Boston. If not, you can watch it on NBC, with coverage starting at 1245 EST.
Aston Villa v Liverpool
When: Saturday, August 24, 1245 EST/1745 BST
Where: Villa Park, Birmingham
Previous Premier League match: Chelsea 2-1 Aston Villa, Liverpool 1-0 Stoke City
League Position 2013-14: Aston Villa 5th (3 points) Liverpool 7th (3 points)
Projected Aston Villa Starting 11
DEF: Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Luna
MID: El Ahmadi, Delph, Westwood
FW: Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor
Subs from: Given, Steer, Baker, Okore, Bennett, Bacuna, Helenius, Bowery, Gardner, Tonev, Stephens, Albrighton, Ireland, Bannan, Hutton, Herd.
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Toure, Agger, Jose Enrique
MID: Gerrard, Lucas, Henderson, Allen, Coutinho
Subs from: Jones, Kelly, Flanagan, Skrtel, Cissokho, Wisdom, Luis Alberto, Ibe, Assaidi, Borini, Aspas.
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard