Liverpool winger Stewart Downing delights at being reminded what a goal looks like. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Liverpool isn't very fun to watch, and they're not an especially good team either. I feel like it's fair for me to say that, because Villa are significantly less fun to watch (at times the most boring team in the Premier League) and the Reds are clearly better. But when speaking of this monstrous December, a lot of people (myself included) have spoken of Liverpool with the same sense of dread as United, Chelsea and Arsenal. Liverpool isn't at that level, at least at the moment. They've certainly been there (and well above it) in the past, and the odds are good they'll be there in the future. But for now, the Reds are outside of the top tier of teams that will expect to blow all domestic competition save their rarefied peers out of the water. This is a game Villa could take a point (even three!) from if they play well and the breaks go their way. But there's a catch: Alex McLeish has to see it that way as well.
Liverpool currently sit 7th in the Premier League, a point behind Newcastle over whom they have a game in hand. They are where they are thanks to the league's best goals-allowed mark, having let in just 13 in 15 games. Remove the significant outlier, a 4-0 loss to Spurs at White Hart Lane, and things look even more impressive. Aside from the aberration in North London, Liverpool haven't allowed more than one goal in any game in any competition all season. And that's come against some pretty stiff competition as well; a 2-0 wins at Stamford Bridge and the Emirates are nothing to sneeze at, nor are the pair of 1-1 draws against the Manchester sides, currently the 1st and 2nd placed teams in the league. But the Reds have been far from prodigious in terms of scoring goals; they've notched 18 in their 15 games, the same number as Aston Villa. In a lot of ways, they're strikingly similar to Villa. They lean on their defense to hold strong and trust their attacking players to grab the goals as they come.
The crucial difference, of course is that Liverpool has better players. As awful a person as he seems to be, Luis Suarez is an excellent footballer. Andy Carroll is a better version of career-prime Emile Heskey (and that's intended to be a compliment, in case you were wondering.) Charlie Adam may be the most overrated player in England, but that doesn't mean he's not a valuable man to have around. The defense has clearly been superb, and in those rare moments during which they have not covered themselves in glory the steadily excellent Pepe Reina has been there to bail them out. But aside from the occasional brilliant flourish from Suarez, this has not been a team bursting at the seams with creativity, flair or ruthless attacking football. They've played very well and earned some very good results, but they've also been terrible and lost games they shouldn't have. Dropping points at Fulham and Stoke isn't something elite teams should really make a habit of doing.
There's a path to success for Villa in this game, and it doesn't involve the kind of piss-poor display and sheepish tactical approach we saw against Spurs or United. The Reds have been kept off the board on four occasions this season, and only once (against Bolton in August) have they scored more than twice. They are, to put it delicately, not especially adventurous. Villa doesn't need to go all-out attack (and shouldn't) but negative defeatism would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Once again.) That means no Alan Hutton at right midfield, no double-pivot with the outside mids playing functionally as wingbacks, no punt-and-pray from the opening kick. That kind of thing is never necessary, but in this case it's not even remotely justifiable. The difficulty when playing Liverpool isn't keeping them off the board; it's getting on the board yourself. Villa will be without Gabby Agbonlahor, who will be serving a suspension due to
being clever and watching the opposing keeper yellow card accumulation, and that will make things difficult. But a seemingly resurgent Marc Albrighton, Charles N'Zogbia continuing to look as though he is aware of his surroundings and the presence of Darren Bent mean Villa are a decent bet to grab at least one goal, presuming they don't pull into a defensive shell for no good reason. Which, again, is a big if.
In case you weren't picking up on the subtext, I'm not expecting a great deal in the way of entertainment from this one, but that isn't necessarily the worst thing. As much as none of us would really welcome sitting through a 0-0 draw, a point would be a good result for Villa and would render the month of December something less than the complete disaster we've all been fearing. We may not like the way the team is going about things, but in the end the results are the most important thing (kind of, but that's a philosophical gray area I don't feel like getting into at the moment) and a point is a point is a point. It's feasible from this one. Just don't expect it to be a whole lot of fun.
However, there is one thing worth tuning on for; Stewart Downing. I've been looking forward to the reception we're sure to hear this afternoon ever since he jumped ship. My voice can't reach Birmingham (and I'll be watching the game several hours after it ends in any case) but I shall be booing lustily is spirit. It's small, and it's petty, but watching Downing struggle since making the move to Liverpool has been immensely enjoyable. Let's hope it continues.