Aston Villa v Liverpool, Sunday 1:30, Sky Sports 1.
Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert made their Premier League managerial debuts last season with Swansea and Norwich respectively, guiding unfancied sides to comfortable midtable positions, and earning themselves a job at a bigger club in the process.
However, while Rodgers finds himself challenging for the European places with Liverpool, Lambert has endured a much more difficult campaign at Aston Villa - they're currently three points outside the relegation zone, but 18th-placed Wigan have a game in hand, and a superior goal difference.
There's good reason for Lambert to be positive ahead of this contest, though - mainly because he keeps getting the better of Rodgers in their head-to-head clashes. Last season, his Norwich side won 3-1 against Swansea at home, before a couple of great tactical switches resulted in an exciting 3-2 victory away. Meanwhile, Villa's best performance of the season came away at Anfield in December, with a superb 3-1 victory.
We shouldn't read too much into three matches, especially as a double change of club is involved midway through, but the pattern has become familiar: Lambert allows Rodgers' side to dominate possession, then focuses upon breaking quickly at an exposed defence.
Besides, Villa are actually in good form. Victories over Reading and QPR in their previous two matches were absolutely crucial to their chances of survival, and while Liverpool is a significantly more difficult test, Villa proved at Anfield that they have the right tools to play quality football.
First, there's Christian Benteke. His sheer strength and link-up play caused Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel all kinds of problems earlier in the season, and Villa will look to get the ball to him as quickly as possible. Expect rapid forward runs from Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann on either flank - they'll look to break past Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique Liverpool's long passing moves break down.
Charles N'Zogbia is pushing for a start, and Fabian Delph is back following suspension, but it would be a surprise if Lambert didn't continue with the midfield trio of Ashley Westwood, Barry Bannan and Yacouba Sylla, who have started Villa's last two matches. Westwood will sit deep, with Bannan spraying passes from a left-centre position and Sylla battling to the right.
Usually, it's difficult to predict whether Rodgers will use a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formation. The latter seems to suit Liverpool more, but too frequently Rodgers has selected the cautious option, with Joe Allen part of a three-man midfield. The Welshman's injury might be a blessing in disguise - it's possible Jordan Henderson could be used in advanced role, but it seems more likely Coutinho and Stewart Downing will play on the flanks, with Luis Suarez just behind Daniel Sturridge.
That would mean a big role for Westwood, sitting in front of the back four - he'll be charged with stopping Suarez. He has an excellent disciplinary record this season, with just one yellow card from 20 starts, although he'll appreciate close support from Bannan - Sylla could play higher, told to press Steven Gerrard. But Villa's approach will be about containing Liverpool, before playing quickly on the break, so the whole side should be able to sit deep and compact.
This seems like yet another game where Liverpool are underpriced. On paper they're clearly the better side, but there's a few factors (Villa's win at Anfield, their two victories on the bounce, Lambert's good record against Rodgers, and the fact Liverpool have had more players away on international duty this week) to suggest that [1.8] for Liverpool is far too short. I will certainly lay Liverpool at that price.
However, Villa haven't kept a clean sheet since the home fixture with Stoke at the start of December. With Suarez, Sturridge and Coutinho in the same side, Liverpool will surely have goals in them - so backing Both Teams To Score at [1.75] also looks promising.comments powered by Disqus