Last year's Villa shock a lesson for Liverpool

Posted by David Usher

One of Liverpool's most disappointing results of last season came when they were shocked by Aston Villa at Anfield in December. It was a significant and surprising upset; Liverpool had won three games on the spin and had lost only one of the previous eleven. Brendan Rodgers had spoken in the buildup to the game about how he was aiming higher than just a top four finish and the Reds looked to be finally finding some consistency after an up and down start to the season.

A home game against struggling Villa appeared to be a great opportunity for Liverpool to continue their push up the table. The Midlanders had scored just two goals in their previous five games and their young side were looking like startled rabbits in the Premier League headlights. There was a real air of complacency about Liverpool that day, however, and they paid the price for it as a Christian Benteke-inspired Villa triumphed 3-1.

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The big Belgian frontman completely dominated Liverpool's defence that day. Martin Skrtel had a torrid afternoon; he was completely bullied by Benteke who was virtually unplayable, scoring twice and creating a third for Andreas Weimann with a clever backheel. Villa raced into a 3-0 lead and then held on fairly comfortably until Steven Gerrard bagged a late consolation in front of the Kop.

It wasn't that Villa were especially good -- indeed, a week later they went to Chelsea and lost 8-0! -- it was that Liverpool were woeful in defence and attack and took to the field with completely the wrong attitude. It has happened a couple of times since, too (Oldham in the FA Cup and Hull away this season being two other examples), but overall Rodgers has generally done an excellent job preparing his team since being shocked by Villa.

This season, the Reds have won nine out of 10 at Anfield, with the Southampton loss the only stain on an otherwise perfect home record. That loss to the Saints was due to numerous factors, but over confidence wasn't one of them. Complacency shouldn't come into it this weekend either, all Rodgers needs to say to his players is "remember what happened last season?" Liverpool know what to expect from Benteke and they know what can happen if their attitude isn't what it should be, so there can be no excuse for a repeat of what happened last season.

The Reds go into the game in good form and fresh from hitting five at Stoke. They can see the light at the end of the tunnel now in terms of injuries too, having recently welcomed back Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge, while Mamadou Sakho and Joe Allen are back in the squad for Villa. That leaves only Daniel Agger, Jose Enrique and Jon Flanagan remaining in the treatment room. That doesn't make up for the lack of January additions to date, but it will certainly make things easier for Rodgers as with a full complement to choose from Liverpool's first choice line up stands up to comparison with anything else the Premier League has to offer.

The big question is whether Sturridge will be thrust back into the starting eleven after his impressive cameo at Stoke last week. Rodgers insists the 12-goal striker is fit enough and ready to start the game if needed, but such has been the form of the Liverpool attackers of late that there is no great necessity to rush the Sturridge into the team.

Raheem Sterling is in the form of his life, Luis Suarez is Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho is bringing a lot to the side despite his struggles in front of goal. Sturridge, however, would improve any side in the country and the Reds' boss will therefore be keen to get him back on the field as soon as possible. Given their style of play, Aston Villa are perhaps the perfect opponent for him to bring Sturridge back, even though it would almost certainly mean a change from the 4-3-3 formation that has served the Reds well of late.

In the absence of Sturridge, Liverpool's three-man attack has worked well and the midfield trio have also (mostly) impressed. The balance has been good; they've enjoyed lots of possession and are creating chances at will. The eternal dilemma for Rodgers is how to keep that midfield strength while playing two up top. There are a number of sides against whom playing just two central midfielders presents a large element of risk, but Villa would not appear to be one of those. 4-4-2 should work just fine against them.

While Paul Lambert's men are much more dangerous away from home than they are at Villa Park, they play almost exclusively on the counter attack and would struggle to dominate possession, even if they were up against a five-a-side team. There have been games this season where Villa have had less than 30 percent possession, which is actually extremely difficult to do. It's almost as if they don't want the ball! If possession is nine tenths of the law, the other tenth belongs to Aston Villa and they probably don't even want that.

Lambert's side play more long balls than anybody; the strength of their side lies with the front three and their approach is therefore based on getting the ball to them as quickly as possible. Benteke offers a threat in the air as well as on the ground (Liverpool know that more than most). Gabriel Agbonlahor is as quick as anyone out there and Weimann is bright and intelligent. Villa certainly carry a goal threat, that's for sure, but can they contain the likes of Suarez and Sturridge at the other end? On their travels, Villa have generally performed quite well, but Liverpool's home record is such that it would be a major shock if the visitors took anything from the game. Even more of a shock than last season, in fact.

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