Aston Villa v Liverpool
Live on BT Sport 1
Confidence has risen considerably after last week’s vital league win at Tottenham, which was the first proof in months that Villa are good enough to take on the big boys and emerge victorious.
A key factor, according to Tim Sherwood, was that he was able to name an unchanged side for the first time but he will not have the same opportunity here as Carlos Sanchez is suspended after his sending-off at White Hart Lane.
Sherwood has given his squad a light week in training in order to avoid any further depletion of his first-choice line-up and he will be particularly keen to continue with his strong spine of internationals from Ron Vlaar in defence to Fabian Delph in midfield and in-form Christian Benteke up front.
The dream of a perfect ending to Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career is still alive, as his final match will be the FA Cup final on May 30 – his 35th birthday – if the Reds clear this hurdle and their captain stays fit and well.
That is not the case at the moment, with Gerrard having played only 27 minutes since suffering a hamstring problem against Tottenham Hotspur on February 10. Notoriously, one of those minutes was his short-lived appearance against Manchester United when he was sent off, resulting in a three-match suspension that cost him the chance of an earlier return.
Gerrard played in a behind-closed-doors friendly this week but seems likely to be on the bench at Wembley.
Martin Skrtel is also available after suspension, which may well prompt a return to a three-man defence even though Mamadou Sakho is out with a hamstring injury.
Injury doubts hang over Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana, while Jordon Ibe is cup-tied. Mario Balotelli is back in training but may only make the bench.
It is interesting that Villa were able to keep a clean sheet in last week’s win at Tottenham, as Liverpool can become blunt and frustrated against well-organised defences and have often failed to deliver at short odds as a result.
One such instance was Villa’s 1-0 win at Anfield in September, but there have been other examples this season – goalless draws at home to Hull and Sunderland in the Premier League and at home to Bolton and Blackburn in the FA Cup.
That always makes you think twice before plunging on Liverpool at short odds, although it is not to say they should not be short-priced favourites as the quality of their top players is self-evident and their record is strong when they score.
Since Christmas, Liverpool have won 16 out of 20 when scoring (including a 2-0 away win over Villa in January) and the only defeats in that run were against Arsenal and Manchester United.
That indicates Villa’s main chance hinges on keeping a clean sheet, which is far from certain as the Tottenham win was only their third shutout in nine matches under Sherwood and the other two were against strugglers West Brom and Sunderland.
With Benteke in their side, however, the game will not necessarily be up for Villa even if they concede. The Belgium striker has rediscovered his best form, notching eight goals in as many appearances under Sherwood, and his contributions at least have kept them in the hunt even when they haven’t won (the 3-1 defeat at Manchester United was the only loss by more than one goal when Benteke has appeared for Sherwood).
Over/Under 2.5 Goals
Much depends on whether you can see Villa scoring, as Liverpool have a strong tendency to do just enough (and in some cases not even that) when they keep a clean sheet. Their only result this season when they shut out the opposition but went over 2.5 goals was back in August with the 3-0 league win at Tottenham.
The picture is different when Liverpool concede, with 15 of their last 17 matches with that scenario in domestic competition having had over 2.5 goals (the two exceptions were the League Cup semi-final legs against Chelsea).
Sherwood has brought a sharper edge to the Villa attack, with only two blanks in nine matches, although the balance has been tilted only slightly towards over 2.5 goals (five out of nine).
At [1.87] over 2.5 goals may have the edge, as the betting suggests, but this is not an easy market to call.
Putting the various strands together, the best bet may lie with Villa off +1 on the Asian Handicap at [1.91].
That allows for the possibility of a Villa clean sheet if Liverpool have one of their misfiring days, a Benteke-inspired win or draw in a higher-scoring game (all scenarios that would make this bet a winner) or at least a close game where Villa keep Liverpool’s winning margin to a single goal (in which case stakes would be returned).
Of course, it could be worth a big-odds punt on a Villa win at [6.4], which is not inconceivable, but that is a shot in the dark, whereas the Asian Handicap route is a solid option based on a variety of form pointers.
Back Aston Villa off +1 on Asian Handicap at [1.91] (1pt)
Staked: 71 pts
Returned: 73.42 pts
P/L: +2.42 pts