What: English Premier League
Who: Liverpool v Aston Villa
When: Saturday 15th December, 2012, at 15:00 UK Time
Where: Anfield, Liverpool, England
Time To Walk The Walk
Brendan Rodgers has one of the worst records of any Liverpool manager in recent memory at present. Yet the Northern Irishman is not under pressure as the club’s fans can see signs of progress. A spirited victory at West Ham last weekend has put the Reds within sight of the top four, even if they do still sit tenth in the table. The Premier League is congested and apart from Manchester City, Manchester United and perhaps Chelsea, the Champions League places are wide open.
Can Liverpool finish in the top four? Rodgers is talking a good game and the 39-year-old is certainly a man with a plan. His team are moving slickly and passing the ball well, but without another striker to play alongside Luis Suarez, Liverpool are dependent on the Uruguayan. Luckily he is back for this one and the Reds should once again have someone to make their pretty football count where in matters, on the scoreboard.
If Liverpool can continue to play as they did against West Ham, and there are signs the Reds are getting into their groove, then three points must be on the cards at Anfield. In many ways this game is more crucial than it appears. For all Liverpool’s good work, they are tenth because of inconsistency and a failure to turn draws into wins. That needs to change in the second half of the season and this will be a big pointer towards whether it will.
Aston Villa, like Liverpool, have taken something of a gamble in trying something new. Manager Paul Lambert is building his side with young players and has even left established striker Darren Bent out of the team regularly. Predictably, Villa have struggled. But Lambert is certainly thinking short term pain for long term gain, and he can already see some of the green shoots.
Young striker Andreas Weimann looks a fine prospect and will surely have no fear when playing at Anfield, while midfielder Ashley Westwood has been schooled in the ways of the game at Crewe Alexandra, the esteemed lower league youth talent producing centre. With more experience, but still just 22, Belgian striker Christian Benteke is already firmly in the "good buy" category.
However, despite the green shoots, Lambert knows his team are in a battle to survive. Just one place above the drop zone, Aston Villa’s season has not been too much to write home about. The League Cup, where Villa are in the semi-finals, is a bright spot, but the Midlands side do not want to repeat neighbours Birmingham City by winning it and then going down. The task at Anfield looks tough, but if Villa can hang in there, get a bit of luck and play with no fear, a shock would not actually be that much of a shock.
Liverpool 1-0 Southampton (01/12; Premier League)
Udinese 0-1 Liverpool (06/12; Europa League)
West Ham 2-3 Liverpool (09/12; Premier League)
QPR 1-1 Aston Villa (01/12; Premier League)
Aston Villa 0-0 Stoke (08/12; Premier League)
Norwich 1-4 Aston Villa (11/12; League Cup)
Liverpool: Martin Kelly, Fabio Borini; Jose Enrique (doubt)
Aston Villa: Ron Vlaar; Darren Bent; Gabriel Agbonlahor (doubt)
Players to watch
Liverpool – Pepe Reina: The Spanish goalkeeper looks to be getting back to his best after a poor 18 months. Strangely, missing seven games through injury seems to have benefited Reina. He now has four clean sheets in his last seven matches and while Liverpool should do most of their work at the other end in this one, Reina will surely be called into action and must continue his good form.
Aston Villa – Ashley Westwood: Liverpool love to keep hold of the ball and will want to dominate possession and for Aston Villa, it is crucial they can hold as much of the ball as possible, relieving the pressure on themselves in the process. Westwood, whom Lambert has dubbed a "mini Paul Scholes", will be at the centre of Villa’s ball retention efforts.
Liverpool and Aston Villa are showing signs of progress under their new managers – but will they develop their respective teams quick enough for the fans? Lambert may have more time, especially if he can sit Villa nicely in mid-table, while a trip to the final of the League Cup would also be a boost. For Rodgers, Liverpool need to move up the table. Possession football is all well and good, but the Reds must punish teams when they have the ball. Liverpool should win this, but whether they do so with ease or not will say much about where they currently are as a club. Liverpool 2-0 Aston Villa.
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