Liverpool squeeze the three points out of Wolves at Anfield and gear up for a massive trip to Villa Park on Tuesday.
A game that Liverpool have to expect to win, but given the way this season has unfolded, no result is a foregone conclusion. The trip to Fratton Park taught us that.
Even the Liverpool victories this season have a tinge of disappointment or controversy, and Saturday was no different. The biggest point of contention, at least from the Wolves perspective, was the sending off of Stephen Ward. Obviously Liverpool were able to push forward a bit more forceably against ten men, and I doubt Pepe Reina had much to do with convincing the referee to send him off. That being said, there's absolutely no need for Reina to have done this, rushing forward like a mad man when he's been Liverpool's most stable presence this season.
Regardless, Liverpool were able to notch the winner just a few minutes later through a Steven Gerrard header. Emiliano Insua's dummy on the left side freed up space, and his cross found the skipper's head to put Liverpool up 1-0. The celebration almost seemed surreal--the captain wheeling away like he'd just scored the winner in a Champions League final, and the Kop rapturously applauding. Unfortunately this is where the club is at, when the go-ahead goal against Wolves sends thousands into delirium. No disrespect to Wolves, but if Liverpool are who we think they are (credit to Denny Green), fixtures like this need to be a sure three points.
Some smart work on the right edge of the box by Yossi Benayoun gave Liverpool their second in the 70th minute. The Israeli collected, cut left, and smashed a shot off Elokobi and past Marcus Hahnemann. Wolves weren't able to find a way back in the match, and it was three points tied up for the Reds. Nice to see Dani Pachecho, one of the club's young talents, get a run-out, although you can't gather much from such a brief glimpse. I will say that it was nice to see someone take a man on nearly every possession. Whether that was a result of circumstance or skill, it's a rarity of late at Liverpool.
Saturday's match was maybe most notable for the starting debut of Alberto Aquilani, who was impressive throughout. He partnered well with Lucas, who dropped back noticeably with the more forward-thinking Aquilani bridging the gap between midfield and attack. The Italian has already shown his propensity for trying the fantastic (backheels, crossfield lasers,etc.), but he'll need to also accomplish the mundane if he's going to feature regularly for Rafa. Cue Xabi Alonso reference #3,092, in which our hero stabilized Liverpool's forward movement. Aquilani certainly looks capable of doing the same, but it will take more regular appearances to find out. I don't know what this means for the "first-choice" partnership of Lucas and Javier Mascherano...at least for the time-being this is not a question that needs answering.
Onto tomorrow, then, with midweek fixtures coming at the start of the week. At the time of writing ten teams had wrapped up matches, with Wolves and City due to kick off in a few hours. Liverpool have to be pleased that they get an extra day's rest, especially considering full fitness is still a pipe dream.
At the current moment, Aston Villa are among the teams posing a legitimate threat to the traditional "Big Four." Currently in fifth place on 35 points, Martin O'Neill and his side have performed admirably thus far. They took the game to Liverpool in the match earlier this year at Anfield, winning 3-1 and signaling their intentions to displace Liverpool among the Champions League qualifiers. Much like Liverpool, Villa have floundered at times against teams of all stripes, the difference being that they've done significantly less of it.
I don't expect much to change from the side that faced Wolves, despite the short turnaround. Dirk Kuyt may return from his brief sabbatical, although I wouldn't be terribly disappointed to see Benayoun on the right flank again. The left side of the midfield continues to be a black hole, though, with Fabio Aurelio the most likely to take up the role again if Dirk Kuyt starts on the bench. The absence of Albert Riera has been roundly felt...he's inconsistent at times, but he pushes forward relentlessly, and Liverpool have been desperately in need of creativity. I'm hopeful that Alberto Aquilani will start again, although two matches in four days might be a stretch. With Masch still banned, Liverpool don't have too many options, and another attacking presence is sorely needed against a Villa side that plays confidently at home.
For Liverpool it's obviously going to be a case of building off their win at the weekend, but it'll be just as important for the Reds to learn from Villa's loss to Arsenal on Sunday. They'll be missing Ashley Young, who received a fifth booking at the Emirates, and looked stretched at times by the skill of Cesc Fabregas and the pace of Theo Walcott. But they haven't lost in eight games at home, and Liverpool's away record this season is less than impressive. A loss tomorrow would push Liverpool to the brink, both in terms of points and psychologically. A game at a time has to be the mantra, but entering the new year eight points adrift of fourth would be tough to forget.