There's only one letter's difference between the words 'pinchable' and 'punchable'. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Relative to their recent history and expectations, Liverpool and Aston Villa are in somewhat similar positions this season. Most supports of both teams had some concerns coming into the year, but I'd be surprised if anyone would have envisioned what's happened. Villa started fairly well and have fallen off of late while Liverpool have shaken off an absolute disaster of a beginning to claw their way back towards something approaching respectability. This is a huge game for both sides; the table is so incredibly tight that dropping points can have immediate and serious consequences. 16th is not a happy place to be, but a win would vault Villa into 11th, three points behind Bolton in 6th. A loss makes finishing top half look like quite the climb. It's a similar situation for Liverpool, though their stakes are higher; because while both clubs have fallen off to a great degree this year, Liverpool had a bit more room to drop.
That might sound counter to logic, considering that Villa did in fact finish ahead of the Reds last season, but let's be honest; who among us thought that Villa were legitimately a better team in terms of talent than Liverpool coming into the year? They have their question marks and they're certainly not the club they once were (for now) but there's some pretty significant separation between these two sides, and it's not in Villa's favor. Coupled with the fact that Ashley Young will be out due to suspension and Barry Bannan is still highly questionable and things begin to look even worse. Liverpool are in a difficult position where injuries are concerned in their own right; Steven Gerrard is about as likely to play as Bannan (perhaps less so) while Daniel Agger and Jamie Carragher are both out. Sotirios Kyrgiakos is Liverpool's fourth choice central defender and will get the start and it's also worth noting that he and Martin Skrtel are Liverpool's last remaining senior center backs.The Reds tend to have one of the fiercer back lines in the Premier League, but they're hurting at the moment and for this game at least the defense has to be considered a question mark.
The same could of course be said for Aston Villa, though it would be for much different (and significantly more annoying) reasons. This hasn't been a talent issue, at least not entirely. James Collins, Richard Dunne and Steven Warnock are all very good in the defensive phase of the game and Luke Young is at least adequate. The problems have been mental. Every single member of the defense has at one time or another been really, really, really stupid. I can deal with players on my teams not being good enough in individual moments and I can even deal with the occasional mental error, but when careless and/or stupid play at the back has cost your team enough points to drop them from the top eight to the bottom five, it has a way of getting under your skin. And while those mistakes are costly against anyone, they're deadly against a team like Liverpool. They might have had their troubles their season and they still look underwhelming a lot of the time, but players like Fernando Torres don't make a habit out of passing up gifted goals.
With Ashley Young, Marc Albrighton and (most likely) Barry Bannan out of the game I'm curious to see what kind of lineup Gerrard Houllier uses in this one and what the tactical approach is in general. Houllier doesn't seem one to play bunker and counter but with a weakened attack and the strength in the midfield being of the defensive variety it makes a lot of sense. One thing that Liverpool does not have much of is creativity and so if you can keep the attackers in front of you there's decent chance you'll be able to shut down their threats at goal. And with the speed of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Stewart Downing in the attack the chance to beat their weakened back line on the break is always there. In honesty I wouldn't mind seeing Gabriel Agbonlahor on the wing with John Carew in the middle; Carew has been bad and Gabby hasn't played as a winger for awhile, but desperate times and all that.
The key to victory (or at least a point) here is the same as it has been for months. Games that Villa have been out of before the death have been few and far between this year and Villa has looked like the dominant and more dangerous side more often than they've looked outmatched. But it just doesn't matter if you consistently fail to capitalize on scoring chances and allow the opposition undeserved opportunities of their own. Liverpool are a team that can be beaten even by this weakened Villa side. But until I'm given reason to believe that that this is a run of poor luck rather than an innate tendency it's incredibly difficult for me to be anything approaching optimistic. This is a nasty situation for Villa, because while this isn't a game they should really be expected to take the points from it's also a game that they desperately need to take points from. When you don't win the games you should you don't have the luxury of not being disappointed with losing the games you should.