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Match Preview: Liverpool v. Aston Villa, 12.06.10

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Gerard Houllier makes his return to the Anfield touchline tomorrow night.

And he'll no doubt be followed closely by the adoring eyes of Jamie Carragher. Swoon.

For me, though, tomorrow's meeting doesn't leave much room for sentimentality or reminiscing---both Villa and Liverpool have underperformed so far this season, with the Midlands side just two points above the relegation zone (nevermind that they're only two points back of Liverpool). Since winning two league matches in August, Villa's won just twice more, with their most recent coming in early November against Blackpool. They nicked two points off United the next weekend, but they've incurred three consecutive losses in all competitions since that draw, including the midweek Carling Cup loss at St. Andrew's.

The early going was always going to be tough for the Villans, with Martin O'Neill leaving just days before the opening day of the season and James Milner soon following. I don't know that they were expecting to be struggling this mightily, though---the 6-0 drubbing away to Newcastle is the result that stands out, but across the board it's been rocky.

Houllier's arrival brought some sort of immediate respite, as the club defeated Blackburn 3-1 in the Carling Cup and took all three points four days later away to Wolves. Since then, though, the aforementioned win over Blackpool and a Carling Cup defeat of Burnley are the only victories in the Houllier era. That's not to say things won't turn around, but so far the former Liverpool boss has yet to find firm footing in his new role.

There's likely plenty of blame to be passed to the injury and fitness concerns---as of Friday, the BBC had no less than seven squad members ruled out through injury, including Emile Heskey, Marc Albrighton, Steve Sidwell, Stiliyan Petrov, and Nigel Reo-Coker. Ashley Young is added to that mix for tomorrow's clash, as he'll serve a one-match ban after meeting the booking limit.

The bulk of the load could fall on Gaby Agbonlahor's increasingly expanding shoulders, although he's yet to score in league and has only recently returned from a groin injury. Former Liverpool men Brad Friedel and Stephen Warnock have avoided the injury bug and played every league match for Villa thus far, and they'll be in the starting eleven along with Stewart Downing, Richard Dunne, Luke Young, and James Collins.

Turning to Liverpool...

1. Who will start for Liverpool?
2. What’s the most important factor for the Reds?
3. Who’s going to win and what’s going to be the scoreline?

1. Who will start for Liverpool?

Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Kuyt Lucas Meireles Maxi
Ngog Torres

---No major new injury news, which is good news. Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger, Jamie Carragher, and Jay Spearing all continue to miss out through injury, with only Gerrard likely to return soon.

---This is the same team that faced Spurs last Sunday, and if that match was any indication of their potential, tomorrow should be worth following. Of course, that ignores the collective impotence of the midweek display at Steaua, but there's only two names that carry over. And, as we've discussed, that had less to do with the personnel than it did with the tactics.

---For the time being I'd guess that the back four is Hodgson's "first choice," even after Paul Konchesky's White Hart Lane nightmare. I'm of the opinion that a non-match fit Fabio Aurelio is as good/better than Konchesky, but I doubt Hodgson is budging. Martin Skrtel and Kyrgiakos will probably partner in central defense, with the former set to make his 100th appearance for the club. That seemed to happen pretty quickly, yeah?

---Not much to say about Lucas and Raul Meireles, as the pairing's performances in the last two matches speak for themselves. I'd guess Maxi's given the opportunity to continue his run of form along with Dirk Kuyt, even if Joe Cole's back among the picking. Ryan Babel and Milan Jovanovic both came out of the Steaua match looking good, but I don't know that it's enough for either to break into the league selection.

---The 16 minutes or so that David Ngog played midweek makes me think that he'll be back with Fernando Torres, and that partnership seems to be developing into something workable. Again, Babel or Cole could ostensibly work their way in, but the latter's impact has been covered already by Noel, and I don't think Babel's going to be preferred to Ngog.

2. What’s the most important factor for the Reds?

Continuing the positivity that was generated by the performance at Spurs is, in my mind, probably the biggest challenge for Liverpool. That, and tethering that type of display to a winning result. The results weren't overwhelming by any stretch, but in the poll earlier in the week, nearly 40% placed emphasis on the performance. Thirty-three percent wanted both, and with a struggling Villa coming to Anfield, I don't think that's too much to ask.

3. Who’s going to win and what’s going to be the scoreline?

I think we get performance and result, and Liverpool get a 2-0 victory. Bonus points if Raul Meireles finally crashes one in from distance---at least then Joel can start to say "I told you so."

The Monday fixture is typically a challenging one for me to catch, but a clever bit of scheduling sees me doing "paperwork" for a two and half hour block tomorrow afternoon. Sky Sports 1 will be carrying the match live in the UK, and ESPN 2 and 3 will have it stateside. As usual, the matchday thread earlier in the day will have links to streams for those of you who have to follow online.

Enjoy your Sunday everyone.