Liverpool vs Aston Villa – Pre-game Assessment

Sunday, September 3, 2 pm Venue: Anfield
Referee: Simon Hooper 

It feels like yesterday that our Villans went to Anfield to take on Liverpool, took the lead in the first half and held it until the 89th minute only for Robert Firmino to, seemingly, dash their hopes of reaching the Europa League competition.  As it turned out, that draw and a subsequent win against Brighton was enough for 7th spot and entry to Europe.  Villa fans were able to reframe that game as a positive step in our growth under the stewardship of Unai Emery.

That was in May and just three months later our excitement at the new season took an immediate blow with an ugly opening game of the season at Newcastle, losing 5-1.  Still, our Villans recovered, winning at home to Everton and away Burnley, to settle into 7th place in the Premier League. 

Meanwhile, Liverpool have performed well, especially coming back with 10-men to nip Newcastle at St. James Park, 2-1, last weekend, stunning the home crowd in the process.  The unbeaten Reds now sit in a 4-way tie for 2nd place with Arsenal, Spurs, and, the surprising, West Ham.  Based on goal difference, they are sitting in 4th place.  That’s the spot Newcastle held at the completion of last season, nipping Liverpool for entry into the coveted UEFA Champions League.  With a remarkable come-back over the Magpies, the Reds gained a measure of revenge and sent a shudder through Tyneside.

The win should give Sunday’s home team an extra boost of confidence in facing our Villans.  Expect them to be very aggressive in the early going with their “high press” aimed to snatch the lead and further excite their fans.  As everyone knows, the “Anfield roar” can be deafening, making it difficult for visitors to function, let-alone get into a rhythm.

One valuable take-away from our Villans’ disappointing Newcastle performance was the team’s response to the early goal scored by the Magpies.  Within 5 minutes we scored an impressive equaliser.  Unfortunately, we made a few more mistakes and we were again down, at 2-1.  Still, there was over 75 minutes to play, and we could have made a game of it if not for Mings’s severe injury.  The three subsequent goals were directly related to the manner and loss of our iconic defensive star.

Though shaken, the team and the fans kept their belief and have won four in a row (two in the Premier League and two in the Europa League) and done so with a flourish.  A major positive for the good guys is that the new line-up, as a group, plays very effectively.  While Tyrone Mings is an incredibly talented defender, blocking shots and making great tackles, he tends to become a one-man show.  The new backline of Konsa, Carlos, and Torres is a cohesive unit who calmly rebuff, and distribute excellently.  So far they have created more possession for our link players and more opportunities to score goals (in the three Premier League games and the two Europa games we have averaged more than 16 shots, at least 6 on-goal, and over 3 goals per game).  In contrast, when we held Liverpool to a 1-1 tie on May 20th, and destined them to miss the Euros, we did so with 6 shots, and only 3 on target, for the 1 goal.

Odds makers are not impressed at our improvement.  They see the Reds at 58% probability of winning.  That is what our manager, Unai Emery, will want the opposition to think.  Naturally, Liverpool’s inspirational manager, Jürgen Klopp, will be do all he can to counter over-confidence, but players are human.  They will still be reminiscing about last Sunday’s “miracle” win.  As for the result that we accomplished in May, they will feel that they have a stronger squad thanks to the acquisitions of World Cup star Alexis Mac Allister, Japan’s captain Wataru Endō, and Hungarian phenom (22-year-old) Dominik Szoboszlai.  Villa fans may agree, but many will be glad to see the back of Fabinho, Henderson, and Firmino.

Meanwhile, Unai is very pleased to have Europa games this early in the season as it lets him sharpen the less active members of his squad with competitive games.  Thursday’s fixture at Villa Park, the second leg against Hibs, filled the stadium and gave this seasons’ substitutes: Chambers, Tielemans, Kellyman, and Revan valuable minutes, more action for goalie Olsen, and more goalscoring opportunities for Duran.  They each made the most of the opportunities with Duran’s goal being particularly polished.

In the same way that Firmino’s contribution off the bench was the game changer in last May’s game, it could easily be a substitute who makes the difference.

Result Prediction:

The winner of this game will be instantly crowned as likely to be a top-four finisher with good reason.  The Reds have shown, under Klopp, their resilience to maintain that level of excellence while Emery appears destined to become an elite manager in the Premier League.

What makes both teams vulnerable in this game is the lack of key players.  Without Virgil van Dijk (suspended for a red card against Newcastle), Reds lose both their defensive star and a dead-ball threat while Villans are missing the scorer of the brilliant goal in May, Jacob Ramsey, and, potentially, our World Cup winner, Emi Martinez.

Even without these individuals, the playing field will be populated by international soccer stars.  What gives our Villa an advantage, is the play of their less feted talents.  That would be Ollie Watkins and John McGinn.  The former is the sparkplug that makes every Villa attack potentially lethal.  Ollie’s speed, strength, stamina, and anticipation empowers every other Villan around him.  Of course, it is the wily McGinn who seems to be the key to most good things that happen for the Claret and Blues.

It is hard to not see this exciting Villa team score at least two goals, but it is equally hard to see Liverpool’s fans (and Klopp) not finding a way to claw back: Liverpool 2, Aston Villa 2.

If it does require a valiant come-back, Reds have the man of the hour, Darwin Núñez.  Like former Liverpool great, Luis Suárez, Núñez is Uruguayan.  Klopp may be tempted to start him but, more likely, he will wait on the bench until he is desperately needed, as against Newcastle.

Our Villans have a similar weapon in their armory, Italian international Nicolò Zaniolo, and he is a natural to replace Moussa Diaby late in the game, especially if we trail.

Predicted Villa Line-Up:

We predict the Villa line-up will be the same as started against Burnley.

Olsen, Konsa, Carlos, Torres, Cash, Kamara, Luiz, McGinn, Digne, Diaby, Watkins

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