Aston Villa‘s chances of taking a result from Anfield could rest on the fitness of Jack Grealish, while Liverpool could look to exploit the aptly named Matt Targett.
The Reds’ return to form was halted on Tuesday night, with Real Madrid comprehensively outplaying them in Spain, taking control of their Champions League quarter-final tie.
It was another reminder of this team’s flaws this season, with key defensive figures missed and certain individuals performing well below their best.
On Saturday, Liverpool host a Villa side who remain in the top-four fight, in an impressive campaign under Dean Smith.
It is a must-win for the Premier League champions, as they look to end an incomprehensible run of six league defeats in a row at Anfield.
Ahead of the game, we spoke to Villa fan and writer Crippy Cooke (@CrippyCooke) to get his thoughts on the weekend clash, the magic of Grealish and plenty more.
How would you assess Aston Villa’s season to date?
Amazing. We spent most of last season in a relegation dogfight and are now chasing a place in Europe a year later.
We have the third-best defensive record in the Premier League and only eight teams have lost fewer games, so we’re moving in the right direction under Dean Smith.
We’ve also beaten the likes of Liverpool, Leicester and Arsenal while taking a point off Chelsea, so we’re capable of standing up to the best teams in the table.
Do you believe a top-four finish is still possible?
I don’t think so. Even though we could go just four points adrift of the Champions League places with a win in our next game, I think a top-six push is more realistic.
Even that isn’t guaranteed, however, as we’re currently ninth in the table, but I think we’ll come close.
I would settle for any top-half finish, as it’s a notable improvement from last season, where we secured survival in our final game.
Then next season, we can make a concerted effort to push even higher up the table.
Who have been Villa’s three best players so far?
Grealish has been our star performer. He creates the most chances, has the most take-ons and contributes the most goals, either by scoring or assisting.
Without him, we struggle to break teams down.
At the other end, Emi Martinez has been outstanding. He’s a Signing of the Season contender and arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League.
We’re fortunate to have a brilliant shot-stopper who is not only brave to claim crosses, but can hold on to efforts without spilling or punching the ball.
Ollie Watkins is in third place. His movement off the ball is fantastic and his holdup play is vital to bringing others into the attack.
He’s also shown a ruthless nature with 11 Premier League goals in his debut season and doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for tireless work.
Just how highly do you rate Grealish?
I think Grealish is the best player Villa have ever produced.
He is good enough to join any club in England, as well as every side in Europe outside of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
He’s a brilliant playmaker with great vision who is difficult to wrestle off the ball without fouling, not to mention making good defenders look amateurish with how easily he ghosts past them.
Switching our attention to Liverpool, why do you think they have struggled this season?
I think injuries have killed Liverpool’s campaign, but energy levels look so diminished compared to last season, too.
The pandemic seemed to disrupt the Reds at the tail-end of 2019/20 and they’re still feeling the effects from that.
They put everything into winning their first title in 30 years and are now burnt out.
Only Man City have successfully defended a Premier League crown since 2009, so it’s getting harder to stay on top for the long-term.
Do you think they will be title contenders in 2021/22?
I think so. Their form has picked up of late and will stay consistent when they can name the same starting XI each week, so I think Liverpool will be Man City’s biggest challenger next season.
It’s easy to forget that they have finished in the top four in each of the last four campaigns and amassed 97 points or more in back-to-back seasons.
For that reason, I think they’re better placed than Arsenal, Man United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Leicester to go all the way.
Looking ahead to Saturday, who do you fear most?
Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota could give us problems on Saturday as they’re ruthless in front of goal.
If we make one error playing out from the back, we’ll get punished by one of them.
Liverpool’s convincing win over Arsenal should tell Villa that the weekend meeting won’t go the same way as October’s 7-2 demolition.
It doesn’t help that Trent Alexander-Arnold has returned to form either, as his distribution is outstanding and requires high levels of concentration from our back line for 90 minutes.
Where do you see the key battles taking place?
I think Alexander-Arnold and Salah could give Targett a difficult afternoon at left-back.
If we don’t have Grealish to pin Trent back, it could lead to constant pressure down that side.
We were pretty awful for the longest time against Fulham and spent a lot of the game defending, so the last thing we need is to allow one of Liverpool’s best passers a lot of the ball.
Finally, hit us with your prediction…
Liverpool aren’t enjoying playing at home while Villa are picking up points on the road, so I think we can get something on Saturday.
That being said, we’ve been inconsistent in the second half of the season and aren’t as formidable at the back, so it wouldn’t surprise if we played out a 1-1 draw.