Sunday's FA Cup semifinal faces two teams that haven't exactly set the world on fire en route to Wembley. Liverpool had to deal with replays against both Bolton and Blackburn, and only beat AFC Wimbledon and Crystal Palace by a goal each. Aston Villa scraped by Blackpool, and did just enough against Bournemouth, Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion, and all four matches were played at Villa Park.
Despite these underwhelming performances, both Premier League teams are within one match of playing for a trophy. Seven-time winners of the FA Cup, Liverpool have collected all of their trophies since Villa's most recent success in 1957. Nevertheless, both clubs have lifted the Cup on an equal number of occasions
Anyways, enough of the history. Let's get to the match. Coming off a victory over Spurs, Tim Sherwood must be one of the most confident men in football these days. Either him, or Christian Benteke. The Belgian has scored eight in his last six, after finding the back of the net just twice in his first 18 league appearances of the season. This is what Villa probably should do, but it's not always that simple.
See, Liverpool like to keep the ball. Brendan Rodgers' side averages 54 percent possession, and while that's not exactly Barça-esque, they try to control the game by playing short passes and crowding the midfield. Liverpool play short passes 85 percent of the time, six percent more than Aston Villa. They like to build from the back, and favour a system with three at the back. They scored a ton of goals last year, but haven't been as successful this season in attack. Chalk some of it up to losing Luis Suárez, but Daniel Sturridge's injury problems are a pretty big reason why as well. With both Sturridge and Mario Balotelli not certain to start on Sunday, Raheem Sterling could once again lead the line.
While Sterling's had a good season, the real danger man in this side is Philippe Coutinho. The four goals and four assists the Brazilian has recorded this year don't do him justice, as his influence in the team isn't always directly measurable. One thing that Aston Villa might have going for them is that a recent injury to Mamadou Sahko has forced a change from using three defenders to a back four. However, the Claret and Blues have plenty of their own injuries to worry about.
Only one of the original back four from the start of the season remains: Ron Vlaar. Strangely enough, he's just recently returned to the lineup. With injuries to Alan Hutton, Ciaran Clark, Philippe Senderos and Aly Cissokho, it's definitely not an ideal situation for manager Tim Sherwood. When Clark was injured against Spurs last week, it was lucky that Nathan Baker was at the top of his game coming in off the bench. He'll start alongside Vlaar this week. Unfortunately, we will probably see Kieran Richardson again at left back, unless Sherwood uses him in midfield. If Richardson does play in the midfield, Leandro Bacuna and Matt Lowton will play left and right back respectively. However, it would also be possible to use Jores Okore at right back and push Bacuna further forward. In goal, it will be interesting to see if Sherwood prefers Brad Guzan or Shay Given. Given's featured in every cup match so far, but with Guzan's past experience at Wembley, maybe Tactics Tim will decide to go with the American. If Guzan's league form was better I'd say he would be a lock, but it's been shaky lately.
As we move up to the midfield, the injury woes don't let up. Ashley Westwood and Scott Sinclair are doubtful. Carles Gil is too, not that Sherwood would play him anyways. Although it was a smart foul that saw Carlos Sánchez see a very late red against Tottenham, he did the crime and must do the time. With him out, the diamond midfield may have to change. Either Fabian Delph or Tom Cleverley could shift to defensive midfield, or the formation could be switched entirely. Since Gabby Agbonlahor is also unlikely to play, shifting from the 4<4>2 to a 4-2-3-1 could be an option, as without Westwood or Sánchez to anchor, the diamond won't be as effective. Charles N'Zogbia comes into the lineup to play on the right wing. Joe Cole would be in the hole behind Christian Benteke, with Jack Grealish on the left. Keeping Andi Weimann on the bench to replace Cole is what I would do, since extra time is a possibility. He may be joined by Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, who you may remember as the 16-year-old that made his debut against Sunderland a few weeks back.
Due to key players missing for both sides, a 4-2-3-1 will be the best option for Villa. On Monday against Newcastle United, Sterling missed a couple key chances. While he has seven goals this year, he's far less clinical than Sturridge. Therefore, Villa need to take a chance. Grealish and N'Zogbia have the quality to beat players one-on-one. If they can exploit Glen Johnson and Alberto Moreno, it will lead to opportunities to cross the ball in to Benteke. Dejan Lovren going against Benteke is basically a dream matchup, and while Emre Can shows a lot of promise, he's not as comfortable as a central defender in a back four compared to a back three, and also likes to forgo his defensive duties to make forward runs from time to time. Without a true holding midfielder available and knowing Sherwood, Delph and Cleverley won't really be sitting back unless Villa get the lead and have to bunker. Without Gabby, the side lacks a pace threat, and the counter attack isn't as viable of a strategy. Therefore, Villa may as well go for it from the start.
The risk here obviously is gambling that Liverpool will miss their chances, or that Villa's goalkeeper can pull off some fantastic saves. A combination of the two will probably be required. As long as some of the mental errors that plagued this team against QPR can be avoided, and no horrible lapses in judgement are made, there's a chance that Tactics Tim could pull it off despite sending his team out to attack with reckless abandon. If Steven Gerrard plays --and I think he will-- there's always the chance he could, well, slip.
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1):
Shay Given; Leandro Bacuna, Ron Vlaar, Ciaran Clark, Kieran Richardson; Tom Cleverley, Fabian Delph; Charles N'Zogbia, Joe Cole, Jack Grealish; Christian Benteke.
Simon Mignolet; Glen Johnson, Dejan Lovren, Emre Can, Alberto Moreno; Joe Allen, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson; Lazar Markovic, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho.
What would you do if you were in Tim Sherwood's position? Let us know in the comments!