Liverpool host Aston Villa tomorrow afternoon with a view to turning around the horrible run of league results that's seen them entrenched firmly in the middle of the table. Six losses in seven have left the club a point behind Everton and eleven off of Newcastle and Chelsea. Villa are safely out of the relegation discussion but have had struggles of their own, with only two wins in 2012 and seven goals conceded in their last two.
The season that manages to get worse at every turn slogs along, with the only really source of positivity another week away and league form that's historically bad. Depending on your perspective, the amount of league matches left on the calender is either a wonderful opportunity to finish strong or just more punishment to heap on the misery. Given Liverpool's recent performances and general inability to give a shit for any extended period of time, I'm leaning towards the latter.
At my most optimistic I think that Liverpool can find a way to end the season on decent note, but it's going to take some significant changes at every level. The battening down of the hatches that we celebrated after Kenny Dalglish's return last spring has now become a source of constant frustration, as it's left little for us to understand in terms of what exactly it is that's going wrong. We're not entitled to anything, but adding uncertainty to the mix leaves us with a fairly volatile mix of unhealthy emotions.
If Liverpool weren't a catastrophe, tomorrow would be the capper of a difficult three-match stretch for Alex McLeish's side, who traveled to the Emirates before hosting Chelsea at Villa Park last weekend. They fought back valiantly last weekend to draw level with Chelsea before surrendering a Branislav Ivanovic winner, but they were never in the match against Arsenal and struggled to muster much of anything in the way of attack.
McLeish has a few absences to contend with, most notably captain Stiliyan Petrov, who was diagnosed with acute leukemia last Friday and recently began treatment. Goes without saying that everyone's hoping for the best for the Bulgarian, who's in his sixth season with Villa. Andreas Weimann, Charles N'Zogbia, and Carlos Cuellar will also be missing, but Alan Hutton is likely to return. Shay Given's been a mainstay in goal, and former Liverpool left-back Stephen Warnock leads the club in appearances. Gaby Agbonlahor will fill in as captain in Petrov's absence, and a host of other familiar veteran Premier League faces---James Collins, Richard Dunne, Stephen Ireland, and Darren Bent among them---will likely start as well.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Kelly Skrtel Coates Enrique
Gerrard Spearing Shelvey
Downing Kuyt Suarez
---Pepe Reina serves the first of a three match ban tomorrow, and Daniel Agger, Charlie Adam, and Lucas remain on the injury list. Neither of Martin Kelly or Glen Johnson has been confirmed as being fit yet, but the former was supposed to be on the cusp of returning ahead of the Newcastle match and will hopefully be available.
---I suppose it's not a terrible thing if Kelly and Johnson need more time, as Jon Flanagan's been mostly serviceable since coming into the side. He's made the odd mistake here and there, but he was one of only a few players that's given the impression it's not a complete pain in the ass to try. Martin Skrtel and Sebastian Coates should partner in central defense, and Jose Enrique will be on the left. Doni seems to be frontrunner to deputize for Reina, but Dalglish left it open between the Brazilian and Brad Jones in his presser yesterday.
---Steven Gerrard is the only lock in the midfield, with Jay Spearing likely and one of Jordan Henderson or Jonjo Shelvey left to round things out. As Noel pointed out the other day, Shelvey was at times alone in trying to drive Liverpool forward on Sunday and should be given an extended run in the side.
---There's a handful of options up front, and after his tantrum after being subbed off last weekend, I could see Andy Carroll starting on the bench. Rumors about Dirk Kuyt's departure in the summer don't bode well for many more appearances, but I'd like to see him start with Luis Suarez on one side and Stewart Downing on the other. As usual, I'd love for Maxi to be included, which might happen given the random starts he's been handed throughout the season.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
Actually showing up.
Tomorrow's kickoff is at 3:00PM GMT/10:00AM EST, which leaves viewers in England without a live televised option. Stateside the match will be shown on Fox Soccer Plus, and we'll have the links for streams in the matchday thread early tomorrow. Team sheets and a guess at the formation will be posted once they're released, and you can get that info here or over on Twitter, where you'll get the added bonus of incessant bitching.
Hope you all have a nice end to the week, and we'll see you back here tomorrow.