It seems to be a recurring theme, but the fact still stands: Aston Villa haven't managed much in terms of goals this season. The two outlets that looked reliable for creating and finishing chances -- Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke -- have had subpar years. The pair have missed games due to suspensions incurred for picking up red cards and also because of injury. Delph will be available for selection this week and should return to the lineup.
Liverpool have struggled as well this year. Obviously without Luis Suárez they weren't going to replicate last season's total of 101 league goals. However, with the transfer business they were able to do after selling the Uruguayan, Brendan Rodgers may have expected more than 29 goals through 21 matches. Granted, it can take some time for new signings to adjust to the Premier League, just look at Carlos Sánchez of Villa. Add in the fact that Daniel Sturridge has missed a significant chunk of this season with an injury, and it's not a total shock that Liverpool are treading water in eighth. If they can stay healthy and rediscover some of that good attacking play, challenging for fourth isn't a stretch. They seem to be turning it around as well. Outside of a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United, Liverpool haven't lost since November 23. If there is a positive takeaway from Villa's perspective, it's that the Reds play Chelsea next, and may be looking ahead to that match.
That may be the only positive for Paul Lambert's side. Last week's demoralising loss to Leicester City means the Villans haven't taken three points in a match since December 7, in the season's first meeting with the Foxes. Villa also recorded a victory on the previous matchday -- against Crystal Palace -- but before that, you have to go all the way back to September to find a win for the Claret and Blues. Coincidentally, it was against Liverpool.
One thing has remained consistent this campaign for Villa: a strong defence. Conceding 23 goals in 21 games is a massive improvement over Lambert's teams in years past. Last year, it was 61 goals at season's end. The year before: 69. Even the bus-parking long ball merchant Alex McLeish's team shipped 53. So we've got that going for us, which is nice.
I almost forgot, Aston Villa actually made a signing! Carles Gil arrived at B6 this week from Valencia CF and should provide Lambert's side with another option out wide. Or maybe just an option, since apparently playing Jack Grealish is a crime. Whether the 22-year old Spaniard will play on the wing or behind the striker as an attacking midfielder is not yet known, and it may take some tinkering to figure out his best position. Let's just assume he will play on the right wing, in Lambert's favoured 4-3-3 formation. Sticking with forwards, Gabby Agbonlahor seems to be undroppable from the side no matter what, so he will get the nod on the left. Even an out of form Benteke is better than anyone else, so he will start at striker.
Like I had mentioned earlier, Fabian Delph is back. Even though he has looked disinterested at times this season, the transfer window is now open and he probably wants to put in a good performance to attract suitors if he wants to leave Villa before this summer. Ashley Westwood and Carlos Sánchez could play a double-pivot behind Delph, allowing him to make driving runs while keeping some structure through the middle of the park. I haven't been too impressed by Tom Cleverley lately, but he is a very decent first sub to have.
The rock-solid defence has been sturdy even in the absence of
Concrete Cardboard Ron Vlaar. The Dutchman's injury woes may end up preventing him to move in January, which is good from a depth standpoint for Villa. Strangely enough, no matter who the two centre halves have been, the defence has still been effective. Philippe Senderos was good when he was in, and so have been Nathan Baker, Ciaran Clark and Jores Okore. Despite their youth and relative lack of first team action, Clark and Okore survived a baptism by fire earlier this season even though they began the season fourth and fifth on the depth chart. Alan Hutton on the right and Aly Cissokho on the left have far exceeded expectations. Brad Guzan in goal has helped immensely as well.
Mario Balotelli could make a return to the starting lineup for Liverpool, and surely will be angry at Villa after getting repeatedly kicked by Senderos last time the sides met. He hasn't been at his best for the Reds this year, but the mercurial Italian could find form at any time. The defence will have to be up to the task of shutting down Raheem Sterling as well. If they're lucky, Steven Gerrard could get a start.
Projected Aston Villa lineup (4-3-3): Guzan; Hutton, Okore, Baker, Cissokho; Sánchez, Westwood, Delph, Gil, Benteke, Agbonlahor.
Bench: Given, Cole, Bacuna, N'Zogbia, Weimann, Cleverley, Grealish.
Who would you start if you were Paul Lambert? Let us know in the comments.