By Séamus Leonard
For a number of years, stretching from the end of Rafael Benitez’s reign, through the horror show of Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish’s second coming and Brendan Rodgers’ first season in charge, stepping onto the hallowed turf at Anfield held little fear for visiting teams.
Indeed, rather than intimidate the opposition, the famous old venue often inspired away teams to perform above and beyond their usual level, which was quite often of a higher standard than the men in red were able to muster up.
During the current roller-coaster season, however, Liverpool’s home form has been excellent. The Merseysiders have won their last eight Premier League encounters at Anfield, with the only defeat in 10 home fixtures coming against Southampton back in September.
The Reds’ away form has not been quite as impressive, though last week’s frenetic 5-3 victory over Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium provided further evidence that Rodgers’ charges are in it for the long haul this season.
While the defending may have been pathetic at times, hitting five away to Stoke is no mean achievement. The fact that the last two goals were created and finished by Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez only added to the feel good factor for Liverpool fans. Sturridge missed the busy holiday period through injury, but his deadly partnership with Suarez immediately resumed where it left off.
Sturridge’s return to fitness and his excellent display after coming on as a substitute at the Potteries leaves Rodgers with a big decision to make. Firstly, he must assess whether Sturridge is sufficiently recovered to start against Villa. If so, he must make the call whether to put SAS on the pitch from the first whistle. Sturridge’s recall would likely force the omission of one of the regular midfield starters. Of them, Brazilian duo Lucas Leiva and Philippe Coutinho are most in danger of dropping to the bench. Rodgers has gone without Lucas before when playing at home, judging that Liverpool will be on the front foot enough that his former Gremio man’s defensive qualities are not essential for victory. However, Coutinho has looked below his best since he returned to action after shoulder surgery and perhaps a spell among the substitutes would give him time to ponder how to rediscover his effervescence.
Villa boss Paul Lambert is likely to team Christian Benteke up front with Grant Holt, the striker who signed on loan from Wigan Athletic this week. The presence of two powerful forwards in the opposition line-up should prompt Rodgers to include Mamadou Sakho in Liverpool’s rearguard after the France international made a rapid recovery from a hamstring injury. The Reds have employed a four-man defense of late, but facing two such physically imposing attackers may see Rodgers revert to three at the back and therefore retain Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel despite their individual and collective failings at Stoke. If that proves to be the case, winger Raheem Sterling could find himself sacrificed.
The visitors have happy memories of Anfield after last season’s 3-1 win there, and they also seem more comfortable away from Villa Park as they have amassed 15 points on the road, while only taking eight points from their games at home.
Villa’s latest home defeat came at the hands of league leaders Arsenal when the Gunners secured a 2-1 victory in the Midlands on Monday. There were positives to take from the game for Villa, however, as it dominated the late stages of the game after Benteke notched his first goal since September. The Belgian scored twice at Anfield last season, so Liverpool has to keep tabs on him.
But Liverpool is not afraid to get involved in a shoot-out this weather, and so the hosts’ focus will again be on the damage they can do at the other end. These are exciting times for Liverpool fans, and Saturday’s game has the potential to be another humdinger.
Liverpool v Aston Villa
When: Saturday, January 18, 1230 EST/1730 GMT
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: Stoke City 3-5 Liverpool, Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal
League Position 2013-14: Liverpool 4th (42 points), Aston Villa 11th (23 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Toure, Skrtel, Sakho
MID: Johnson, Lucas, Henderson, Gerrard, Cissokho
FW: Suarez, Sturridge
Subs from: Jones, Kelly, Ilori, Allen, Luis Alberto, Aspas, Moses, Ibe, Smith, Sinclair
Projected Aston Villa Starting 11
DEF: Clark, Vlaar, Bacuna
MID: Luna, Delph, Westwood, El Ahmadi, Lowton
FW: Benteke, Holt
Subs from: Steer, Bertrand, Albrighton, Sylla, Weimann, Tonev, Bennett, Herd, Gardner, Bowery, Helenius, Donacien, Agbonlahor
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard