Aston Villa v Liverpool
Live on BT Sport 1.
Match Odds: Aston Villa [6.4], Liverpool [1.63], The Draw [4.2].
Aston Villa might yet need points to escape relegation, and Liverpool are still in contention for the Champions League places, but both sides will be determined to win this FA Cup semi-final, and book another date at Wembley in May.
Both managers have big selection decisions – for completely different reasons. While Tim Sherwood has injury and suspension problems, Brendan Rodgers might be able to welcome back absent players. With the starting line-ups uncertain, a couple of key decisions might prove crucial.
Sherwood’s main headache is the suspension of Carlos Sanchez, dismissed for a silly second booking late in Villa’s victory at White Hart Lane last weekend. The Colombian had been playing the anchorman role in Villa’s 4-3-1-2 formation, and it remains to be seen how Sherwood replaces him.
There are various options. Sherwood could welcome back Ashley Westwood, although he’s rated doubtful because of a hamstring injury, or alternatively he could move Kieran Richardson forward from left-back, shifting Fabian Delph or Tom Cleverley into a more defensive role.
The best solution, however, could be a complete change of system. Sherwood had previously been using a 4-2-3-1 formation, and this might suit his players best – Delph and Cleverley can play as the midfield duo, with three attacking midfielders racing forward to support the revitalised Christian Benteke.
So much depends on injury, however. Alan Hutton, Scott Sinclair, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Aly Cissokho join Westwood in being injury doubts, and the reality is that Sherwood will probably throw together (roughly) his best 11 players and work out the system afterwards. This, after all, is a manager not particularly keen to talk about tactics.
That can’t be said of Rodgers, who has constantly varied his shape this season in search of good attacking performances. The 3-4-3 that prompted Liverpool’s upturn in form seemed to lose its unpredictability a couple of weeks ago, and was shelved for the 2-0 win against Newcastle on Monday, with 4-3-3 returning.
There seems no obvious reason to switch back to a three-man defence, although the return of Martin Skrtel gives Rodgers options. It seems most likely Skrtel will play alongside Emre Can at the heart of a four-man defence, with Skrtel presumably battling against Benteke and Can watching either Agbonlahor or Andreas Weimann.
Steven Gerrard is another returning after a ban, but it would be a surprise to see him start. Lucas Leiva should anchor the midfield with Joe Allen to his left and Jordan Henderson providing the forward running to his right. Henderson’s scrap against Delph, a similar player and fellow England international, will be particularly interesting.
Daniel Sturridge‘s fitness, as always, is uncertain. If fit to start, he’ll surely play centrally with Coutinho left and Raheem Sterling right, but Rodgers seems increasingly keen to be cautious with Sturridge’s fitness, which means Lazar Markovic could start instead. This would mean Coutinho playing as a false nine, as against Newcastle, although Sterling has also played that role effectively this season.
With so many questions about the shape of both sides, therefore, it’s difficult to predict the tactical battle in great deal. What we do know, however, is that Benteke is in excellent form with eight goals in his last six games, and has been given freedom to stay upfront rather than get back and become involved when Villa are defending. He could be the key man.
Elsewhere, I’d be looking at the price for an Alan Hutton booking, if he starts – with five yellows in his last 13 games, not 100% fit and up against some tricky wingers, it’s easy to see Michael Oliver cautioning him.
My main bet, however, is much simpler – Villa are a touch overpriced at [6.4]. They’re playing some fine football, Benteke is the country’s on-form striker and on neutral ground, they have the ability to shock Liverpool over 90 minutes.
Back Aston Villa at [6.4]
The Betfair Trader’s View: Alan Thompson
Last week’s victory at White Hart Lane was a massive boost for Aston Villa before this FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. The three points took them to 15th in the league, six points clear of QPR who are currently occupying that final relegation place. Liverpool have also been in good form with just two defeats in their last 16 starts, the two defeats coming back-to-back against Manchester United and Arsenal, but last week they got back to winning ways in the league seeing off a poor Newcastle United side.
Villa have enjoyed home advantage all the way to this stage of the competition beating Blackpool (1-0), Bournemouth (2-1), Leicester (2-1) and West Bromwich Albion (2-0) and the cup has been a welcome break from their disappointing league campaign. However, their injury list seems to be growing by the day and while I am sure the Villa fans will enjoy their day out, I think the club’s main focus will be on the bigger prize of staying in the Premier League, rather than thinking about a Cup Final in May.
It hasn’t been an easy route to the semi-final for Liverpool, they have reached this stage without winning an FA Cup game at Anfield, despite being drawn at home in two of the rounds. Both home ties ended as 0-0 draws against Bolton and Blackburn Rovers but the Reds managed to get past them 1-2 and 0-1 respectively in the replays. They also had to win away at AFC Wimbledon (1-2) and Crystal Palace (1-2) to secure their place at Wembley.
The last time the two clubs met in the FA Cup was at this stage in 1996, where Liverpool ran out 3-0 winners, however more recent meetings in the league Liverpool have won only three of the last seven. The Reds are rightly favourites to win this but it may take them some time to break Villa’s resistance, I will be backing Draw/Liverpool in the Half Time/Full Time Market @ 5.0.