The Reds travel to Wembley for the first time under Brendan Rodgers this weekend for the much anticipated FA Cup semi-final tie against Aston Villa. Ben Twelves takes a look at the all-important team selection options ahead of the match.
A second trip to Wembley and final clash against Arsenal or Championship side Reading awaits the Reds should they overcome Tim Sherwood’s revitalised Villa. Having endured a far from straightforward journey to reach this late stage of the competition, it’s essential Rodgers’ men keep focussed to ensure of a return to ‘Anfield South’ in over a months’ time.
Rodgers’ side must take confidence from successive wins and clean sheets in the last two matches.
Villa, meanwhile, have eased their fears of relegation in recent weeks but head into Sunday’s fixture in the middle of an untimely injury crisis which could see them take to the Wembley pitch with somewhat of a makeshift team.
It promises to be a huge occasion for Liverpool with a place in the showpiece final within touching distance, and Rodgers is faced with some tough and interesting decisions to make over which 11 players will be trusted to take to the pristine Wembley surface and complete the task ahead.
The Reds will be without their best central defender, Mamadou Sakho, with the Frenchman set for a month on the side-lines and Adam Lallana is also set to miss the match due to an on-going groin problem, while Jordon Ibe is frustratingly cup-tied having featured for loan club Derby back in round three.
Daniel Sturridge is once again in a race against time to be fit as he battles to shake-off a hip injury, but Rodgers is boosted by the return of suspended duo Martin Skrtel and captain Steven Gerrard, who the Liverpool boss has a dilemma over as to whether he picks the 34-year-old to lead the side out at Wembley for what could be the last time in his illustrious Anfield career.
Rodgers: “Gerrard is definitely ready. The most important thing is his availability. He’s a special footballer.”
Mario Balotelli has recovered from a combination of injury and illness to be in contention to feature on Sunday – something that could happen should Sturridge fail in his attempts to recover in time and with a place in a potential front three up for grabs – though Lazar Markovic and strikers Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert who both scored in the 2-0 win at Villa Park in January, will all be equally as hopeful of claiming a start.
A concerning defensive display against the Geordies last time out could tempt Rodgers into altering his back four where forgotten men Javier Manquillo and Jon Flanagan will be hopeful of dislodging Glen Johnson at right back, the way Skrtel could do to Dejan Lovren who struggled again on Monday night at the heart of the Liverpool back line.
The Liverpool XI
Rodgers will again have to choose between sticking with a four man defence and deploying a 4-3-3 system, or reverting to a back three and the 3-4-2-1 formation that transformed the season and helped progress the Reds to this stage.
The squad available to the Reds manager is better balanced to be able to operate with a three man defence unlike on Monday night, but following the so far successful formation switch to a back four, the Northern Irishman could deploy it for the third match running.
Rodgers: “It’s great to have Martin Skrtel back available. He looks fit and strong. He’s very well liked and respected at the club.”
If he does keep faith with 4-3-3, Skrtel should regain his shirt at centre back, but with Johnson turning in a woeful display on Monday and Manquillo and Flanagan both well short of match practice, Emre Can should move to right back where he can burst forward to join attacking play, allowing the Slovakian to play alongside and guide Lovren.
It’s hard to see where Gerrard fits in within this system as an energetic midfield and attack is needed, and while Sturridge is set to be afforded maximum opportunity to recover, his availability remains unlikely meaning Sterling could lead the line switching positions with Philippe Coutinho, with Markovic taking the space vacated by Ibe.
Two changes to the starting XI from Monday could see the Reds line up like this at Wembley in the 4-3-3 formation:
Switching back to 3-4-2-1 is a viable option for the Liverpool manager, and he may well choose to do so.
The return of Skrtel allows Rodgers to pick Can and Lovren either side of the 30-year-old, and with Markovic ready to come in, the young Serbian could resume his role at right wing-back – relegating Johnson to the bench – outside of a Henderson-Lucas midfield pairing.
In that shape, there would be a place available for Gerrard to start in the front three where the inspirational 34-year-old could join the Brazilian magician in playing behind Sterling, who should lead the attack in Sturridge’s likely absence.
Those alterations of formation and selection could see Liverpool line up looking like this come 3pm kick-off time:
Rodgers: “At Liverpool you are always judged on trophies. It’s something we want to do for the incredible supporters we have here.”
Having progressed the hard way, the Reds must now produce a dominant performance in front of the 32,000 strong travelling Reds and capitalise on a chance for a shot at silverware that could provide a platform for more success for a developing team in the not so distant future.
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