Liverpool find themselves sixth in the Premier League table as the season resumes
Aston Villa are under new management after Unai Emery replaced Steven Gerrard
Liverpool cannot lose too much more ground in the race for the Champions League
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Jurgen Klopp’s side will aim to leave the first part of the season behind them, starting with this trip to Villa Park.
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Just short of 12 months ago, Liverpool drew 2-2 with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It was not a bad result in isolation - far from it, given their opponents’ status as the reigning European champions. But a failure to win in west London left Jurgen Klopp’s side 11 points adrift of the top spot in the Premier League.
Liverpool did have a game in hand on Manchester City at the summit of the standings, but the title race seemed to be done and dusted. In fact, the Reds were superb throughout the second half of the season. They pushed City all the way, finishing just a point shy of first place. It was a tremendous effort given how much ground they had to make up.
Liverpool have an even bigger mountain to climb this time around. After 14 matches, Klopp’s men are 15 points adrift of Arsenal in the top spot. The manager has already admitted that his team are no longer in the title race - and he is probably right.
Liverpool still have plenty to play for, though. The battle for the top four looks set to be extremely fierce this term, with Newcastle having forced their way into the conversation alongside the customary six candidates.
The top two of Arsenal and Manchester City look pretty well set, so there could be just two spots up for grabs between Liverpool, Newcastle, Tottenham, Manchester United, and Chelsea.
Liverpool showed how valuable momentum can be in the second half of the last term, when they almost reeled in Manchester City, won the FA Cup and the EFL Cup, and reached the final of the Champions League. After an inconsistent first part of the season ahead of World Cup 2022, Liverpool need to go on a winning run - starting on Boxing Day.
When Aston Villa sacked Dean Smith as their head coach in November of last year, they were just outside the Premier League relegation zone. Smith’s successor, Steven Gerrard, was tasked with leading the club away from danger and then, in his first full season at the helm, embarking on a challenge for the European qualification spots.
Gerrard fulfilled the first part of his remit, but things went badly wrong this season. For the second fall in a row, Villa made a managerial change due to concerns about being dragged into the basement battle.
Unai Emery was an excellent choice to replace him. The Spaniard has a fantastic track record with clubs of comparable size to Villa, especially in the Europa League.
True, he has tended to fare better in knockout competitions than in the round-robin format of domestic leagues. But Emery got his Villa tenure off to a brilliant start, overseeing back-to-back victories over Manchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion. He has since had plenty of time to get his ideas across to the squad he inherited from Gerrard.
Still, Villa should not get ahead of themselves. Twelfth at the time of writing, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could yet push for a top-seven finish. But the primary objective, for now, should be to stabilize in mid-table.
Finishing halfway up the standings would be a decent outcome this term before Emery attempts to succeed where Gerrard could not by taking the next step in his first full campaign in the dugout.
Emery has been categorized as a defensive manager in the past, but that is an unfair label. He is undoubtedly an astute tactician who prides himself on his ability to organize a team, especially in defense. But Emery’s sides score their fair share of goals too. His Villarreal were the fourth-highest scorers in La Liga last season, for instance.
Liverpool’s defense should therefore expect to come under pressure on Monday. With 17 goals conceded in 14 games, Klopp’s team do not have a disastrous defensive record up to now. But nor have they looked as solid as we have become accustomed to in recent years.
For that reason, we fancy the hosts to find the back of the net at what is sure to be a raucous Villa Park. Whether that is enough to avoid defeat remains to be seen, however.
Having had what was effectively a second pre-season to work with his players, we expect Klopp’s charges to come flying out of the traps. They did not have as many players involved in the latter stages of the World Cup as some of their rivals, and that should serve them well. Back Liverpool to win and goals at both ends in this one.
Teams: Aston Villa vs Liverpool
Location: Villa Park, Liverpool, England
Date and Time: Monday, 26 December 2022, 12.30 PM EDT
How to Watch: USA Network
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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