Rob Gutmann’s match preview ahead of Aston Villa v Liverpool at Villa Park, with expectations for the game potentially changing after a tricky Christmas period…


A STRANGE fixture that Liverpool probably weren’t sure how best to approach just got a lot weirder in the past 24 hours.

The hosts Villa now can’t put out their first team due to a Covid outbreak at their training ground and will instead offer up their Under-23s to face the Champions.

Rewind a couple of weeks and we were kind of hoping to park this game – to file it under ‘we just put the kids out for Villa because we have bigger fish to fry’.

Things changed as a result of our making an absolute fist of our Christmas fixtures and emerging from a set where we should’ve bagged seven points, playing badly, with a mere two. Strange thing is, I don’t think we were that poor over the three games, but the results most definitely were.

There’s an adage about playing badly and yet still winning being a sign of much better things to come. I’ve never entirely bought that but one thing more certain is that playing OK but losing is never good for the soul, the points tally and, crucially, for confidence.

A fortnight or so is a long time in football. Liverpool’s march towards back to back titles looked very much on after the 7-0 mauling of Crystal Palace. West Brom, Newcastle and Southampton looked lambs to the slaughter. Turns out they were wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Liverpool's Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' during the FA Premier League match between Southampton FC and Liverpool FC at St Mary's Stadium

A week or two ago it was a ‘fun’ exercise trying to pick the Liverpool side for a low priority FA Cup third round game. Many will still view it that way, but I’m not sure the Liverpool manager will despite Villa’s Covid woes.

I’ve noticed media speculating that the kids will man the defence and that the squad men will fill out midfield and attack. Meanwhile the likes of Divock Origi, Neco Willians and Nat Phillips would’ve viewed themselves as shoo ins for the starting 11 at Villa Park.

I could be made to look foolish but I sense that Jürgen Klopp will feel that, although it’s been a busy season, the fortnight gap between Liverpool’s last outing at Southampton and the big one next up at home to Man Utd on January 17 represents just a bit too much rest and respite time. He’ll be extremely anxious about footballers getting themselves out of competitive rhythm.

To this end, my guess is that he will involve far more first 11 players than most would’ve expected.

Of the fringe lads whom Klopp will feel he can’t deny a chance at a rare start, expect young keeper Kelleher, Neco Williams and Minamino to be the likeliest first 11 men. Shaqiri and Origi will be involved but whether or not it’s from the get go remains to be seen.

A crucial factor is that the five-substitutes rule applies in the FA Cup this season. This may tempt the manager into viewing the game in the way he did the away fixture to Ajax earlier in this season’s Champions League competition. In the fixture in Amsterdam, he gave Curtis Jones and Jordan Henderson 45 minutes each and changed out his entire front three on 60 minutes.

I can see a similar approach at Villa Park. He may start with the reserve frontline of Shaqiri, Origi and Minamino and swap them for his first-choice triumvirate after half time. Or some variation on that theme.

Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp prepares to bring on substitute Xherdan Shaqiri during the FA Premier League match between Southampton FC and Liverpool FC at St Mary's Stadium

Klopp will want to give Thiago more first team minutes and he seems a fair bet to start, but Naby Keita isn’t fit so we could see Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum sharing one midfield slot over the course of the 90 minutes. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will also be in the discussion.

In defence, aside from the keeper, Neco Williams should get the nod for Trent’s slot and James Milner will surely cover for the overworked Andy Robbo. Most expect the rookies, Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips to partner up in central defence but I think there’s an outside chance Fabinho retains his place if Klopp decides that he needs his main to keep ticking over, in terms of match fitness.

Make no mistake – Klopp will want to win this game now. Liverpool need to rebuild confidence and quickly. Aston Villa’s first team would’ve represented formidable opponents and have humiliated Liverpool once earlier in the season.

Any kind of win tonight, however scruffy and/or narrow will suffice to a degree, if not in compensating for that early season beating but in rehabilitating The Reds’ confidence a touch ahead of the six pointer against Man Utd in 10 days’ time.

Predicted 11: Kelleher; N Williams, R Williams, Phillips, Milner; Thiago, Chamberlain, Jones; Minamino, Origi, Shaqiri

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