Steven Gerrard & Jamie Carragher sidelined for return of Gerard Houllier to Anfield...
After going on an inspiring run of six games unbeaten in all competitions, Liverpool have slipped into an all too familiar situation that sees them with little room for error. They are well off the pace in the race for fourth place, as 10 points separate them from Manchester City.
And even if the Reds should win this game - which is technically a game in hand - it would still mean that they would have to navigate through a run of form that is seven points better than City’s results. All this would still be fruitless if Tottenham Hotspur, continue to push forward as they did last month.
So saying that the Merseyside club have no room for error is correct if they are realistically chasing fourth spot, which has looked a little unlikely since their morose start to the season.
Manager Roy Hodgson will be without both his skipper Gerrard and his vice-captain Carragher, who are sidelined with injuries. The talismanic England international is expected to be back in time for the next Premier League game against Newcastle United, while centre-half Carragher sustained a dislocated shoulder against Tottenham and surgery has ruled him out for up to three months.
On the other hand there is some encouragement to be taken from Joe Cole’s return to fitness, though his form still poses some concern. But the performances put in by Raul Meireles and Maxi Rodriguez in the recent loss to Spurs is encouragement enough that the home side can still pose a potent threat in the absence of Gerrard.
Another positive is that the manager rested several players during the midweek tie against Steaua Bucharest, when the team secured qualification into the knockout round of the Europa League. Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt, Raul Meireles, Glen Johnson and Paul Konchesky played no part in the game against the Romanian side, while Lucas’ last minute appearance can barely be termed an exertion.
Meanwhile, Torres’ form has been a bit of a concern as he has been slightly off colour this season, though there have been a few flashes of brilliance that remind supporters what he is capable of. And in the absence of key players, it may be up to the Spaniard to produce a performance worthy of winning the game.
Nostalgic Return For Houllier
Gerard Houllier still talks fondly about his time as manager of Liverpool, and the trip to his former home will likely be an emotional one.
The Frenchman guided the Reds to an historic cup treble in 2001, when they won the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup (forerunner of the Europa League). He even guided the club to a second-placed finish in the top-flight, which they have failed to better since - though they did equal it and come tantalisingly close to winning the Premier League under his successor Rafael Benitez.
Houllier, though, ran into a wall of criticism during a portion of his reign at Anfield as his tactics were at times viewed as one-dimensional while his signings were also subject to some criticism. In particular, his failure to get the team playing creatively during the latter part of his tenure led to a strained relationship with the upper echelon of the club that ultimately led to an exit by mutual consent.
He returned to manage French heavyweights Lyon and took a break from club management during a spell with the French FA before returning to the hotseat, and England, to succeed Martin O’Neill at Aston Villa.
The Ulsterman was a real favourite at Villa Park, but left suddenly - just before the start of the season – owing to a disagreement with owner Randy Lerner. As yet the 63-year-old replacement has been unable to play saviour and rescue the club convincingly from the fall-out following the popular O'Neill's departure; but he could alleviate the situation by master-minding a victory over his former employers.
To accomplish this, Houllier will have to spur his side to produce something different, as they have only one win away from home this season – against Wolverhampton Wanderers, which is hardly a major feat as they are currently languishing at the bottom of the standings.
Having been unable to fill every unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run, Villa find themselves in rough weather as they have won only one game in their last seven outings in all competitions. What is worse is that they have lost their last three matches, with the late strike by Nikola Zigic in the Birmingham derby proving to be a real League Cup quarter-final heartbreaker at St Andrew’s.
The time for redemption is ripe, but the question is whether the Villans can muster the sort of performance that will earn them three points at Anfield.
Steven Gerrard (hamstring) remains on the sidelines owing to the injury sustained whilst on international duty, but now the club’s vice-captain Jamie Carragher (dislocated shoulder) has joined the skipper on the sidelines - and is expected to remain out of action for three months having undergone surgery.
Sotirios Kyrgiakos should come in and take the role of the vice-captain like he did against Steaua Bucharest in midweek, while Daniel Agger (calf) has not yet recovered from injury.
Jay Spearing (ankle) is not in contention to make an appearance, though it remains unlikely that he would have been given a look in even if fit.
Joe Cole, Milan Jovanovic and Christian Poulsen are all in contention to play a part in this fixture, with the former Chelsea midfielder in particular having a chance of playing behind Torres owing to Gerrard’s injury. But manager Roy Hodgson will likely opt to go with David Ngog to partner the Spaniard since Cole is only just back from injury.
Possible starting line-up: Reina, Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel, Konchesky; Kuyt, Meireles, Lucas, Maxi; Ngog, Torres.
Stiliyan Petrov and Fabian Delph (both knee) are unavailable due to injury and are only expected to return in the new year. Steve Sidwell (Achilles) is also out until Christmas.
Midfielder Barry Bannan (groin) is rated as a doubt for this game, and is unlikely to feature at Anfield. But Marc Albrighton, Nigel Reo-Coker and Emile Heskey have all made significant progress in returning from their respective injuries. However, this game may be a little early for the trio.
Ashley Young picked up his fifth yellow card of the season during the volatile midweek clash in the League Cup against Birmingham City, and will serve a one-match suspension so is unavailable for this game.
Stephen Ireland could make the starting line-up in the absence of Bannan, while Robert Pires and youngster Jonathan Hogg could also be in line to play from the first whistle.
Possible starting line-up: Friedel; L Young, Dunne, Collins, Warnock; Clark, Hogg; Pires, Ireland, Downing; Agbonlahor.