Aston Villa v Liverpool, Premier League, December 29, 2009
If this game had been played on Boxing Day, the first of the Christmas fixtures for either team, there would have been a clear favourite with Liverpool in the doldrums after defeat at Portsmouth and Aston Villa flying high after five successive wins. Differing fortunes over the weekend mean this is a pivotal game for both sides looking to secure a Champions League spot.
Cesc Fabregasâ€™ cameo in the second half sent Villa to their first defeat in the Premier League since losing at West Ham at the beginning of November. Martin Oâ€™Neillâ€™s side had been on a terrific run and had not let in a goal during four matches in the league. (Aston Villa are 5/2 to keep a clean sheet.)
Oâ€™Neill and his coaching staff now have to pick up the Villa players in just 48 hours and the former Leicester and Celtic manager will also have some dilemmas over which players are ready to take on another of the formerly established â€œBig Four.â€
Ashley Young picked up a booking at the Emirates so will definitely miss out due to suspension. This could see Fabian Delph or Steve Sidwell come in for a rare start and James Milner sent out wide right from his recently established position in the centre. Oâ€™Neill also has the option of playing both John Carew and Emile Heskey up front and pushing Gabriel Agbonlahor back into midfield.
Villa should be confident in front of their home support to record a morale boosting victory before a double cup header with Blackburn in the following week. It was only just over four months ago that Martin Oâ€™Neillâ€™s side bagged a famous win at Anfield which was their first victory over Liverpool in eight years.
Liverpool, five points behind their hosts, saw off Wolves on Saturday in another fairly unconvincing display by Rafa Benitezâ€™s side. The sending off of Stephen Ward played a major role in Liverpool running away with the win in the second half but the Merseyside giants laboured to dominate one of the poorest teams in the division. (5/6 to be under 2.5 goals in the game.)
Alberto Aquilani in particular was unconvincing in central midfield and Benitez may be wary of playing the Italian in what should be a high octane game on Tuesday night. Dirk Kuyt is likely to start after receiving a rare rest for Saturdayâ€™s home win where Spaniard starlet Dani Pacheco impressed in a substitute appearance and could be one to watch out for in future.
It has been a frustrating season for Liverpool, who despite the protestations from Rafa Benitez, still look like they will struggle to secure a Champions League spot. In particular their away form has been pretty woeful and they have not won outside of Merseyside in the league since a 3-2 victory at West Ham in mid-September (they did beat Everton away in November).
A feature of Liverpoolâ€™s season has been defeats to the teams around and above them, there were though signs on Saturday that will have encouraged Liverpool fans, including a more powerful performance from Steven Gerrard. Last season, Aston Villa fell away in the second half of the campaign and the Holte End will now this is a crucial encounter to regain some momentum.
101gg predicts: Aston Villa 2 â€“ Liverpool 2 (18/1)
Full match odds here.