Liverpool host Aston Villa tomorrow on the heels of three straight wins in all competitions and two in league, with an eye on climbing the table further against a Villa side that have struggled to climb out of the bottom part of the Premier League table.
Optimism is a scary, scary feeling, and ahead of tomorrow we're faced with having yet another reason for feeling hopeful about where Liverpool's headed. That's completely wonderful, of course, but it's also terrifying as hell after one false dawn after another in the past three seasons. Almost the entire narrative surrounding Liverpool is one of renewed promise just weeks after it was one of disaster, and while there's every possibility it returns to the latter, a win tomorrow would only strengthen talk that Liverpool aren't quite the parody some would have you believe.
Most of us have known that for awhile, with measured expectations and a general awareness that struggles don't necessarily indicate a lack of progress. During a month that many have earmarked as a make-or-break period in the club's season--at least ahead of January, which is, you know, a make-or-break period in the club's season--the chance to experience continued success is plenty of fodder for more of the emotional lability we experienced last weekend, even if it comes against a squad that hasn't been quite as successful.
Paul Lambert's had a hell of a time in his first season as Aston Villa manager, with much of time spent staving off a spot in the bottom three. Their points total is at least far better than Reading and QPR (who sit on 9 and 7 points respectively), but they're currently relying on goal differential to stay out of the bottom three. Results recently have been more encouraging--they're unbeaten in their last five, most recently coming out with a 4-1 win in the League Cup at Lambert's old side, Norwich, to progress to the semifinals. They also beat Reading at the end of November, with draws with Arsenal, Stoke, and QPR over the past few weeks as well.
Neither of Darren Bent or Ron Vlaar will feature tomorrow because of injury (even though the forward's been out of favor when fit), and apparently Gabby Agbonlahor is a question as well. Lambert's relied on a handful of regulars throughout his first season in the West Midlands; Brad Guzan's been a mainstay in goal, Matthew Lowton and Ciaran Clark have featured most often in defense with Barry Bannan, Stephen Ireland, Ashley Westwood, and Karim El Ahmadi in the midfield and summer signing Christian Benteke expected to start up top and Andreas Weimann a possibility as well.
Wisdom Skrtel Agger Johnson
Shelvey Suarez Sterling
As Noel mentioned yesterday, the fitness of Jose Enrique remains the biggest question ahead of tomorrow. And, as has been the case recently, whether or not he's available will have an impact throughout the squad. No other big concerns, thankfully, with long-term absentees Fabio Borini and Martin Kelly the only sure misses.
I've decided that I'll pick Andre Wisdom until I'm right, so ANDRE WISDOM AT RIGHT BACK. But seriously, it makes sense tomorrow just like it did every other time I've guessed it in the past two months--he's healthy, Enrique's not, and Glen Johnson's the best fullback going in English football. Unless you're stuck on the narrative from four years ago, in which case whatever, but as long as Wisdom's ready I think Brendan Rodgers can avoid Stewart Downing at left back. Which means Stewart Downing will be starting at left back with Glen Johnson on the right.
Seeing Joe Allen on a spell of relatively extended rest is an exciting prospect, and he'll join Lucas and Steven Gerrard in central midfield. Microscopic possibility that Gerrard pushes further forward in attack, but at this point I'm prone to guess that Jonjo Shelvey plays that part if needed (even if Being: Liverpool promised differently). Jordan Henderson will have some part to play, whether it's mop-up duty or with a view to changing the match in a manner similar to what he's managed over the past few weeks.
Shelvey joining Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez might be a stretch, but Oussama Assaidi's might not even make the squad, Joe Cole has been improved but still not convincing, and Suso's faded from his role in the eleven to barely featuring as a substitute outside of cup competition. Downing's still a possibility but seems more likely to start at fullback if he's going to play, and all things considered, it wouldn't be terrible to see what Shelvey could offer.
The 3:00PM GMT/10:00AM EST kickoff means no viewing options in the UK, but stateside there'll be live coverage on FuelTV for those with providers that carry it. We'll have the open thread up for the overnight and the matchday post early on in the day, and if any other viewing options open up in the meantime we'll be sure to include those as well. Team sheets run an hour before kickoff and will be posted once someone's already beat me to it in the comments, and outside of that we hope you'll all be around to join us.