There have been some changes in Liverpool's defence since the resumption of club football after the international break. Martin Skrtel was banned for three games, Brendan Rodgers returned to a back four to help recover from successive league defeats, and Mamadou Sakho was injured. Although Rodgers' side has kept clean sheets in the last two games, the return of the Slovakia national team captain is desperately needed in the absence of Sakho.
Who would feel confident with Dejan Lovren being the more experienced head alongside Emre Can against Aston Villa? Skrtel has been one of Liverpool's best performers this season and will be expected to lead the defence on Sunday. The challenge ahead for the 30-year-old and his fellow defenders will be to contain Christian Benteke, who has been scoring goals and restoring his reputation as one of the Premier League's top strikers. The influence of Tim Sherwood has been beneficial for a player previously linked with a move to one of the Premier League's leading clubs.
"He is playing well at the moment," Skrtel said on Christian Benteke's recent form. "He is always difficult to play against but we played against him twice this season and we handled him. I just hope we can do that again. The main thing is to play our game and try to win in our way. He is the type of player you have to expect a battle with because he is big and strong. He is quick so it will be difficult but we are ready for that and we will do everything possible to stop him. I’m tall as well and I try to be strong. When we go to the 50/50 challenge we will see who is better in that moment."
It's difficult to argue with Skrtel's assessment of the threat Benteke poses, but will he be sharp enough after three games out? There have been instances in the past of Skrtel finding even average target men a problem to deal with, but over the last two seasons the Slovakian Fans' Player of the Year has shown an admirable appetite for battles with physically imposing strikers. His excellence in the air and improvements made in positioning himself against such opponents served the Liverpool veteran well. In his seventh full season at the club, the defender has a good idea of what type of striker he prefers playing against, but does the 24-year-old Aston Villa striker fit that profile?
"To be honest I prefer to play against that type of striker, like (Diego) Costa," Skrtel refreshingly admitted. "That is better because for me I don’t want to chase the little guys! Obviously I don’t want to say it is easier for me, but I enjoy that more."
Evidence from Skrtel's first season under Brendan Rodgers would suggest that Benteke is capable of overwhelming Liverpool's most reliable centre back available for selection, but the improvements in his game since then could see the Belgian finding few opportunities to help Aston Villa to victory. This battle could very well be crucial in deciding which team will enjoy another trip to Wembley next month.