Can Aston Villa counter Liverpool's threat?

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC/Getty ImagesChristian Benteke is back to his scoring ways, can he make a difference against in-form Liverpool?

It doesn't get any easier for Villa. Saturday afternoon sees a trip to Anfield to face Liverpool in the day's late kick-off; another outing in front of the TV cameras, and another opportunity for the flaws of this Villa team to be broadcast direct, and live, into millions of homes.

And there are plenty of flaws. While there were moments of encouragement, in the final quarter of the game, against Arsenal on Monday night, the end result was a defeat. Another defeat. Villa have lost six in eight. Liverpool have won seven in nine, beaten by just Chelsea and Manchester City recently, both 2-1 reversals away from home.

Not since Nov. 2, have Liverpool failed to score in a fixture -- that day saw a 2-0 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates. The Reds have been beaten just once at home all season, falling 1-0 against Southampton in September.

If this is sounding resoundingly gloomy, from a Villa point of view -- then please accept an apology. But there's little point in dressing it up any other way. Villa are out of form and Liverpool are continuing to have a stellar season. Villa's prospects are not bright.

The genius of Luis Suarez lights up everything they do, but around him stand players who continue to make impressive contributions: his fit-again strike partner Daniel Sturridge, the re-emerging Raheem Sterling, the rapidly-improving Jordan Henderson, and Philippe Coutinho, creative and improvisational. Then, of course, there is Steven Gerrard, as influential as ever, driving his side on from the centre of midfield.

Villa have actually fared reasonably well in this fixture of late, winning twice in the last four visits, and drawing on another occasion. In August 2009, Villa won 3-1, helped by an own goal from Lucas and further strikes from Curtis Davies and Ashley Young. In April 2012, in the midst of an otherwise pretty bleak run of results, Villa claimed a point thanks to an excellent long-range goal from Chris Herd (who was playing in midfield that day). The solitary defeat in the last four meetings came in December 2010, when Villa were overwhelmed 3-0.

Then there was last season. Villa's performance, and victory, stands out as one of the most satisfying of the campaign. Paul Lambert's team won 3-1 in December 2012, with Christian Benteke scoring twice and Andreas Weimann also on the scoresheet. It was a display which promised better times ahead, although Villa experienced an immediate slump before recovering for the final dozen or so matches of the season.

Villa won not because they controlled the match -- far from it, with Liverpool enjoying over 70 percent of possession -- but because they were clinical in front of goal. Weimann's strike was an absolute peach, as he played Benteke clear before racing into the penalty area and dispatching the Belgian's brilliant back heeled return ball. Fast, incisive and decisive, it was Villa at their best last season.

That kind of play has been largely absent throughout 2013-14. Villa's strikers have lost their finishing touch, and without that, the chances of the club repeating that victory on Saturday look slim. The balance of the game will almost certainly mirror that of 13 months ago, with Liverpool chiefly in control and Villa seeking to counter effectively. Unless there's a dramatic transformation in Villa's approach, chances will be at a premium, and Lambert's team will have to rediscover their sharpness and make every opening count.

Lambert will have been heartened by Benteke's goal against Arsenal; anywhere near his best, and the striker makes a world of difference to the team. Aside from that, the Villa manager has to work out a way to contain Liverpool's multiple attacking options -- starting with the near-impossible task of subduing Suarez -- and ensure his side get a shot at winning the game.

Not easy. This might have been the perfect occasion to field 3-5-2 or 5-3-2, using three central defenders, as Lambert has favoured from time to time. But with Nathan Baker ruled out of the visit to Merseyside as a precaution after his concussion earlier this week, Lambert doesn't have three centre-backs to call on. Herd, a potential option, is also out with a hamstring injury and, given the success Matt Lowton had in getting forward in the closing stages against Arsenal, moving him inside as a third stopper would not be advisable. He's better off at right-back.

Instead, 4-5-1 without the ball, and 4-3-3 with, should be Lambert's best approach: Lowton, Ron Vlaar, Ciaran Clark and Antonio Luna as a back four, with Leandro Bacuna, Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph as a midfield trio from right to left; Marc Albrighton and Gabby Agbonlahor providing the cover and width on the flanks, and supporting Benteke.

There could be a debut if, as expected, Villa's new loan signing Grant Holt is named among the substitutes. You suspect that a visit to Liverpool is exactly the type of game Holt was recruited for; Lambert has turned to him as much for his mental fortitude as his footballing ability, and one thing is all but guaranteed -- the 32-year-old will certainly not be overawed by the atmosphere at Anfield.

He has previous on this ground, Holt: in October 2011, his headed goal earned Norwich a point. Repeating that, on his debut, after an unsuccessful goalscoring season to date with Wigan, is surely too much to expect, but the Holt who spoke to the media this week sounded confident, assured and determined to make the most of his chance at Villa, even if his stay is short. Lambert will surely be unable to resist the temptation of throwing him into the action at some point.


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