Sunday's lunch time kick off see's Premier League strugglers Aston Villa host Liverpool, who themselves have suffered inconsistency in recent weeks. Liverpool will be determined to secure European football, most likely Europa League, whilst Villa, despite back-to-back wins are still not safe in the Premier League. Villa are the outsiders at 4.50 to win, whilst Liverpool, who are inconsistent on the road, are available at 1.75 and Unibet’s clear favourites.
Villa will line-up in their usual 4-5-1 variant. Benteke of course will lead the line supported by Agbonlahor and Wiemann, with N'Zogbia potentially in behind him to link the play, although Lambert might play another central midfielder instead to solidify his side off the ball.
For Liverpool, hoping to bounce back from their 3-1 defeat at Southampton, one would expect them to go with a fairly aggressive line-up. They could opt for Downing, Coutinho, Sturridge and Suarez in the same side, with Gerrard and Lucas sitting deep. Reina should return in goal ahead of Jones, as the Spaniard is fit again.
Villa's direct approach
The main feature of Villa's play is how direct they are. Top scorer Christian Benteke is often the target of long balls, winning over 8.5 headers a game (more than any other player in the league barring Andy Carroll). He brings others into play, such as Wiemann with his knock downs and holds the ball up effectively.
The supply often comes direct from the back, with keeper Brad Guzan playing 7 long passes per game on average, the fourth highest number of long balls in the league. Villa are at times quite limited and as such the direct style of play has been the saving grace of Villa's campaign, with Benteke scoring an impressive 13 league goals.
His own link up with Wiemann, who is often the closest support player has been very effective this season, with the Austrian getting six goals. Wiemann and Benteke have been comfortably Villa's best players this season and them will be key to Liverpool getting a result.
The Reds are set up to enjoy a lot of the ball in midfield, so if Villa skip out the midfield with long balls it might unsettle them. Liverpool's back four has also been a bit uncertain of late, conceding five goals in their last two Premier League encounters.
Skrtel, who is almost certain to start, has made five defensive errors already this season (the second most for an outfield player after Vermaelen) and keeper Pepe Reina has made six errors. The keeper is not particularly comfortable with aerial balls these days, which could make this an interesting area to watch, given Villa’s tendency to play it high to Benteke.
Liverpool's attacking threat against a vulnerable Villa back-line
Villa's back line has been incredibly vulnerable this season. Paul Lambert came in and made wholesale changes to his formation and line-up, including changing personnel in defence.
The consequence has been a very porous Villa side who are leaking goals, having conceded in the Premier League, which is more than any other side barring Reading. Despite showing improved form of late, winning three of their last five, the defence is still not as tight as it should be. They have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last 14 Premier League games. As a result, one would expect Suarez to be chomping at the bit to face Villa and get at that back-line.
Suarez's movement between midfield areas and attack might drag players out of position. If Sturridge also plays, he too can cause gaps to emerge. Liverpool have scored 15 goals in their last four league ties ,which does not bode well for Paul Lambert's Villa side.
The movement of the front three must be tracked by Villa, which could be difficult. Wiemann and Agbonlahor like to get forward to support Benteke, but will have to work hard to track Downing and Sturridge when Villa are not in possession, making the formation more of a solid 4-5-1 than a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. This is where Liverpool can have joy, as both Sturridge and Downing tend to cut in front their opposing natural flanks, making them a bit harder to track.
Liverpool are the overwhelming favourites for this. The likes of Suarez, Coutinho, Sturridge and Gerrard might be too much for a Villa side that hasn't kept a clean sheet in 14 Premier League games.
The home side need to get something from this tie with their survival in the Premier League very much in the balance. Their best chance of causing an upset will be through Benteke, who ran riot at Anfield as Villa recorded a shock 1-3 victory there earlier this season.
Lambert will no doubt be reminding his side of this upset and looking to inspire another big result. Liverpool will certainly enjoy the lion’s share of possession in this tie, but with effective counter-attacking and a direct approach there might be something in this for Villa.
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