Kick-off: Tuesday 29 December, 7.45pm GMT
Villa Park, Birmingham
Villa Park, Birmingham
Aston Villa’s collective head could still be spinning from the whirlwind performance of Cesc Fabregas on Sunday. The pretenders to the Big Four had held their own at the Emirates Stadium for more than half the game, until a fantastic cameo from the Spaniard left them on the wrong end of a 3-0 defeat; a hit-and-run if ever there was one.
What manager Martin O’Neill must avoid now is a repeat of last season’s spectacular dip in form that led to a sixth place finish in the Premier League. The Irishman has been keen to play down Villa’s chances of breaking into the Champions League places, but with a strong squad, the Midlands-based club has every opportunity to take advantage of Liverpool’s slow start, having already got the better of them once this year.
Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is sticking by his guarantee that the Reds will still finish in the top four this season and after a win over Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Spaniard must be hoping his club has turned the ever-elusive corner to their season. However, Benitez has been on the verge of turning so many corners this season that he might need a sat nav to find his way to Champions League qualification.
Still, with Fernando Torres working his way back to full fitness, Steven Gerrard scoring and a first start in the Premier League for Alberto Aquilani, Liverpool fans will be optimistic that they can get the better of Villa, who could still be smarting from a Boxing Day defeat.
Arsenal 3-0 Aston Villa (Prem)
Aston Villa 1-0 Stoke (Prem)
Sunderland 0-2 Aston Villa (Prem)
Man Utd 0-1 Aston Villa (Prem)
Aston Villa 3-0 Hull (Prem)
Liverpool 2-0 Wolves (Prem)
Portsmouth 2-0 Liverpool (Prem)
Liverpool 2-1 Wigan (Prem)
Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal (Prem)
Liverpool 1-2 Fiorentina (Champions League)
Villa are unable to call on winger Ashley Young, who collected his fifth yellow card of the season against Arsenal, so James Milner may revert back to the wing. Emile Heskey is also unlikely to feature having worked hard to gain full fitness to feature at the Emirates, so John carew may start.
Possible Starting XI: Friedel; Luke Young, Dunne, Cuellar, Warnock; Milner, Petrov, Sidwell, Downing; Agbonlahor, Carew.
Liverpool will be without the suspended Javier Mascherano, who was sent off in the defeat to Portsmouth before Christmas, which could force Benitez into selecting Alberto Aquilani for his second Premier League start. Fernando Torres could be considered as a risk if required to play two games in quick succession.
Possible Starting XI: Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua; Kuyt, Spearing, Lucas, Benayoun, Gerrard; Ngog.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
With several of Villa's squad being English-born, several of O'Neill's charges are making their case for a World Cup place for 2010, and one man with a chance of getting on the plane is Gabriel Agbonlahor. The pacey striker is a real handful for defenders, and could cause problems for Jamie Carragher and co.
Having found the net with a fine header on Saturday, Steven Gerrard will be hopeful he can drag his team up the table with a win at Villa Park. The club captain's performances have been noted as sub-par by his own high standards lately, but Gerrard is showing hints of his true quality.
Despite their recent defeat, Villa will still be confident of beating Liverpool at home, though the Reds know that, with half the season gone, getting off to a strong start to the New Year is vital, and could see them through.
Aston Villa 1-2 Liverpool
Jamie Dunn, Goal.com
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