Liverpool host Aston Villa on Saturday (3pm, UK time) with their stuttering season hanging in the balance.
The reigning champions have given a limp defence of their title, sitting seventh in the Premier League table, a massive 25 points behind leaders Manchester City, while they’re three points adrift of West Ham in the fourth and final Champions League spot.
To make matters worse, Jurgen Klopp’s men suffered a 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final showdown, meaning they’ll need another memorable Anfield night to keep their continental dreams alive.
Villa head to Merseyside fresh from ending a four-game winless streak with a 3-1 comeback win over Fulham last time out. Dean Smith’s side are ninth in the table and could close the gap between themselves and their hosts to two points with a game in hand if they can win at Anfield for the first time since September 2014.
Let’s take a look at the potential line-ups and biggest talking points ahead of Saturday’s vital clash.
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1. Predicted Liverpool XI…
The major turning point of Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Arsenal last weekend was when Klopp replaced Andrew Robertson with Diogo Jota and switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation, lining the Portuguese forward up alongside Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. Within seven minutes, the Reds had taken a two-goal lead and, even after Firmino was then withdrawn, Arsenal had been pressed into submission, unable to stop Mane teeing up Jota for a third.
Klopp reverted back to his usual 4-3-3 formation against Real Madrid but when asked to prior that match whether he would try fielding his four best forwards again in the future, he remained open to the possibility.
“You have to wait and see, but it looked good hey? It looked really good [against Arsenal],” said Klopp. “It looked good in the first half at least against Man City as well. There will be a moment where we give it a try.”
Don’t be surprised to see that alternative formation wheeled out this weekend. Firmino and Jota are brilliant at finding space between the lines where they can connect play and drag opposition defenders out of position, while the latter can also drift into wide areas and interchange with Salah and Mane.
Liverpool’s new “fab four” would be protected and serviced by a double-pivot Fabinho and Thiago. The former will break up Aston Villa counter-attacks and use his brilliant spatial awareness to free his forwards of defensive responsibility, while also easing the pressure on inexperienced centre-backs Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips, while the latter will be in charge of delivering precision passes into the feet of Jota and Firmino, who will be ready to turn and cause havoc at a moment’s notice.
Of course, should the forwards fail to generate the requisite chemistry between them, Liverpool can always rely on full-backs Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold (who was immense against Arsenal) to provide world-class deliveries into the box.
2. Predicted Aston Villa XI…
Smith is unlikely to change too much from the side that delivered a 3-1 win over Fulham last time out.
Tyrone Mings quickly redeemed his mistake that led to Fulham’s goal by setting up Trezeguet’s equaliser, and will keep his place in defence alongside Ezri Konsa, Matty Cash and Matt Targett. As well as the equaliser, Trezeguet fired Villa in front against Fulham and is likely to be brought into the starting XI in favour of Anwar El Ghazi as a result. He and Bertrand Traore will look to get close to Ollie Watkins to give Liverpool’s young centre-back pairing a serious test.
With Jack Grealish still working his way back to fitness, a central three of Douglas Luiz, Morgan Sanson and John McGinn is likely to remain Smith’s choice. The trio offer plenty of mobility and defensive solidity, while McGinn and Sanson are strong ball carriers who will look to get their side moving quickly in transition, something Fabinho will have to be particularly aware of.
3. Sadio Mane to end drought against one of his favourite opponents
Mane has scored just seven goals in 27 Premier League games so far this season and is currently enduring a run of eight top-flight games without finding the net. Not the sort of form we’ve come to expect from the 2018/19 Golden Boot winner.
But this weekend presents an opportunity for the Senegal international to get back on track against one of his favourite opponents. Across seven appearances against Villa in all competitions for Liverpool and Southampton, Mane has so far scored eight goals, including five in his last four outings. What’s more, the 28-year-old has never lost against the Midlands club, winning five and drawing the other two of his seven meetings with Villa.
Only Crystal Palace (10) have conceded more goals at Mane’s hands than Villa, though the Eagles have faced the former Red Bull Salzburg forward on six more occasions. If there’s any game that Mane can use to get his mojo back, it’s this one.
Relevant odds with Karamba: Sadio Mane to score at any time @ 33/20
4. Can Watkins and Co test Liverpool’s wobbling defence?
You won’t need telling that the absences of Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez have hurt Liverpool this season. But in recent weeks the pairing of Phillips and Kabak had looked to be getting the Reds through this rough patch, keeping clean sheets against the likes of RB Leipzig and Arsenal. All that came crashing down against Real Madrid.
Time and again, Phillips and Kabak failed to deal with routine balls delivered right at the heart of the Liverpool defence, while their lack of communication with full-backs Robertson and Alexander-Arnold left far too much space for the likes of Vincius Jr and Marco Asensio to get onto precision passes from Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. And it was Alexander-Arnold’s mistake which put Asensio clear to score Madrid’s second goal.
Of course, Villa scored seven goals against a Liverpool defence anchored by Van Dijk and Gomez back in October, with Ollie Watkins helping himself to a hat-trick that night. Since then, the now-England international has gone from strength to strength, taking his Premier League tally to 11 goals.
Around him, the likes of Trezeguet, Traore and El Ghazi are superb at picking up those spaces between the opposition full-backs and centre-backs and Smith will no doubt be looking to his midfielders to fire the ball into these spots as much as possible, preying on more timid defending from Phillips and Kabak, and poor positioning from Klopp’s full-backs.
5. No home comforts for Liverpool
Given the incredible record Klopp has enjoyed at Anfield, it’s hard to believe Liverpool have lost their last six Premier League home matches. For context, Huddersfield Town were the last team to lose seven in a row back in February 2019. Prior to this season, the highest a team has finished in a top-flight season when they’ve lost six or more home games in a row is ninth, achieved by Sunderland in 1946/47. Liverpool currently sit seventh, though Everton and Villa both have games in hand.
If the Reds are to climb back up the table and into the top four, there’s no doubting this inexplicable home slump needs addressing. We say inexplicable because Liverpool have endured defeats to sides currently placed 15th, 16th and 18th in the table during that run.
But if Klopp thinks he’ll get an easy ride back to winning ways on home turf against Villa this weekend, he’s sorely mistaken. Yes, the Midlands club lost 2-0 here last season, but in their last 10 visits to Anfield, Villa have managed three wins and three draws, scoring 14 goals along the way.
To call Villa “Anfield experts” would perhaps be a push, but they certainly have a history of causing Liverpool problems on their own turf. Couple that with the confidence they’ll draw from that 7-2 win earlier this season and, well, you can easily imagine Villa inflicting a seventh consecutive home defeat on Liverpool.
Relevant odds with Karamba: Aston Villa to win @ 5/1