Reds ready to prove credentials
Monday night's live ESPN offering sees a resurgent Liverpool host Aston Villa at Anfield.
Rafa Benitez v Martin O'Neill
The new season is only two games old for Liverpool but already Benitez has been forced to deny rumours on Merseyside that he is ready to walk out on the club. Reported frustration over a lack of spending money has not convinced the Spaniard to quit and he watched on, no doubt with a flicker of satisfaction, as the Reds beat Stoke City 4-0 on Wednesday to respond to their opening-day defeat to Tottenham.
Villa were also vanquished last weekend when succumbing to a 2-0 home defeat to Wigan Athletic as Martin O'Neill surprisingly handed a debut to teenage midfielder Fabian Delph following his transfer from Leeds United. If Delph starts in the cauldron of Anfield, it will be quite a declaration of faith in the youngster.
Both clubs have been in the process of acquiring defensive cover in recent days but while Liverpool have agreed a deal to sign Greece international Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Villa's recruiting drive continues with O'Neill admitting a new defender is 'key' if the club are to emulate last season's spirited challenge for a top-four place.
At Anfield, much of Villa's hopes will rest on the broad shoulders of former Liverpool striker Emile Heskey who will spearhead their attack. Dynamism in wide positions is supplied by Ashley Young and James Milner, who both featured in England's recent friendly draw with Holland.
Liverpool, meanwhile, look a team still grappling with the loss of Xabi Alonso and while Lucas Leiva performed well in the Stoke victory, it remains to be seen whether his partnership with Javier Mascherano will be sufficiently creative to help unlock a more accomplished defence. O'Neill's prime objective will be to cut off the supply line to Steven Gerrard and lone striker Fernando Torres.
Javier Mascherano v Stiliyan Petrov
Mascherano - arguably the finest exponent of the 'Makelele position' (in front of the back four) currently performing in English football - will play a key role in winning back possession at Anfield and, if he can counter the influence of Petrov and keep finding Gerrard, then Liverpool should be able to dictate the pace of the tie.
But with Alonso comfortably residing in Madrid, the chance is there for Villa captain Petrov to take the initiative in midfield. The Bulgarian enjoyed his finest campaign in Villa colours last season and will be looking to play in Milner, Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor at every given opportunity.
Alonso's excellent range of passing and his vision on the ball may not be addressed until new signing Alberto Aquilani returns from injury and Liverpool's success in the early part of the season may depend on the ability of Mascherano and Lucas to deputise. Between them, the two midfielders contributed only one more assist (3) than goalkeeper Jose Reina last season.
Glen Johnson v Ashley Young
The most exciting head-to-head battle of the game could come in the form of the two England internationals, with Johnson raiding down the flank from right-back and Young playing in an advanced role down the left wing for Villa. Both men possess electric pace and were included in the PFA Team of the Year last season after excellent campaigns.
But while Young remains at Villa, Johnson's superb displays for Portsmouth last season saw him earn an £18m move to Anfield. The defender duly scored an acrobatic goal on his home debut on Wednesday and Benitez will require him to link up with Dirk Kuyt to good effect as they aim to unsettle the visiting defence.
Young is a formidable opponent though and if he can peg Johnson back in his own half then Villa could well cut off one of Liverpool's most likely avenues of attack. The Villa star is also a danger from set pieces and claimed seven goals and nine assists in the Premier League last season.
Jamie Carragher v Emile Heskey
It remains to be seen whether Kyrgiakos will make his debut for Liverpool on Monday so, with Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel currently sidelined, Carragher could well be partnered in defence by youngster Daniel Ayala. The Spaniard made his full debut against Stoke and Carragher will be charged with helping him through another stern test of his credentials.
Heskey is an awkward opponent for even the most experienced of defenders and his qualities should be well known to Carragher as the striker enjoyed a four-year stay at Anfield before joining Birmingham in 2004. He has scored just twice in 15 appearances following his return to the Second City in January but will be determined to prove his quality in a World Cup year.
If Carragher can subdue his former team-mate and prevent him from holding the ball up and playing in Agbonlahor, then Villa will lose a key dimension to their attack.
• Liverpool have won 86 of the 176 meetings between the two sides, with Villa winning 52 and 38 games ending in a draw.
• Their last defeat to Villa came eight years ago in a 3-1 loss at Anfield in September 2001. Emile Heskey started up front for Liverpool, who also fielded Carragher and Steven Gerrard.
• Gerrard enjoys playing against Villa and has scored ten goals against the Midlanders - the most he has notched up against any club.
• Heskey scored 39 goals in 150 league appearances for Liverpool - a goals to games ratio of 0.26. His ratio for Villa, having scored twice in 15 games, is only 0.13.
• Top league scorers in 2008-09: Liverpool: Gerrard, 16. Villa: Carew and Agbonlahor, 11.
• Aston Villa have only won their first away game of the season twice in the Premier League era, against Newcastle in 1999 and Tottenham in 1995.