Liverpool go into Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa on the back of a 2-0 win at home to Newcastle. The clean sheet and two goals scored make this look like an ideal scoreline to take confidence into Sunday, but to take comfort from an unconvincing performance against a poor Newcastle side would be a mistake.
Aston Villa will pose an entirely different threat compared to the meek showing offered up by Newcastle’s players on Monday, and going into the game with the mindset that this game was a comfortable win could lead to complacency.
Whilst Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood has received plenty of stick from some quarters, he’s taken a team which were stuck in the relegation mire to relative safety.
Impressive wins against local rivals West Bromwich Albion in both league and cup gave the team a springboard to go on and win at fellow strugglers Sunderland; a game in which they trounced the Black Cats by four goals to nil.
In Villa’s last game Sherwood returned to White Hart Lane, picking up a 0-1 win at the home of his former employers Tottenham Hotspur.
Sherwood’s arrival in late February has been an inspiration to previously misfiring forward Christian Benteke, with the Belgian scoring 8 goals in his last 6 games plus another for his country for good measure. Benteke’s tally pre-Sherwood was just 3 goals in 18 appearances.
He’s not been the only one to benefit from the former Spurs coach’s management, as promising young midfielder Jack Grealish has been promoted from the bench to the starting line-up under Sherwood.
The Solihull born Irish international has been around the squad all season, but has recently been thrust into the limelight in an important role at the attacking tip of a diamond midfield.
As a player who many considered to be a promising winger, his introduction in this central role reflects a trend of playing quicker players, who might previously have been considered one-dimensional wide-men, in central play-making roles.
Liverpool had their own version of this last season when Raheem Sterling would sometimes play centrally behind a pair of strikers. There are many similarities between Sherwood’s current system, and the diamond used by Brendan Rodgers during the 2013/14 campaign.
Grealish’s skill set is a lite version of Sterling with a smidgen of Philippe Coutinho thrown in, and many commentators think he has the potential to one day match the quality Liverpool pair. The Wembley stage could be a chance for him to take a big step in that direction, so Liverpool’s midfield and defence will have to be on their guard.
Speaking of which, Liverpool’s defence will also be hoping that Gabriel Agbonlahor can’t make the game. The forward has been suffering with a hamstring injury of late, but his return could see a combination of pace, power (Benteke), and guile (Grealish) that Liverpool’s shaky Sakho-less defence could struggle to cope with.
Sakho’s absence throws up plenty of problems when it comes to picking Rodgers’ strongest team available. Sticking with a back two would mean either a combination of Skrtel and Lovren, which looked disastrous earlier in the season, or keeping Emre Can in the team and forcing him to play in a the more unfamiliar role of left centre back alongside Skrtel. This is presuming that the Slovakian will be thrown back into the starting lineup following his suspension.
Emre Can could play at right back, but the other option would be to revert to a back three of Can, Skrtel, and Lovren. In terms of natural positions this seems like the best option, and with Daniel Sturridge’s return this formation would allow a forward three of Coutinho, Sterling, and Sturridge.
Martin Skrtel isn’t the only player returning from suspension, as Steven Gerrard is also back in the squad following his stamp on Ander Herrera in that disastrous game against Manchester United at Anfield.
Brendan Rodgers now faces a tough decision on whether to sentimentally throw Gerrard into the fray, or keep him in reserve on the sidelines. There’s an argument to play Gerrard from the start – there will be for as long as he’s at the club – but if Sturridge comes in to replace the cup tied Jordon Ibe, and Skrtel replaces Glen Johnson, who will Gerrard replace?
The pace and energy in the Aston villa ranks means that playing both Gerrard and Lucas could be a mistake, as it often is. The best role for the club captain could be as an experienced presence in the Wembley dressing room, and a second half cameo should the situation require.
Let Lucas deal with Benteke, with Skrtel and Lovren picking up the pieces. Let Can be Can and let Coutinho be brilliant.
Possible Starting XI:
Mignolet; Can, Skrtel, Lovren; Henderson, Allen, Lucas, Moreno; Sterling, Coutinho; Sturridge