Brendan Rodgers has confirmed that captain Steven Gerrard is ready to return for Liverpool in Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal against Aston Villa. Gerrard has missed the last three matches after being sent off less than a minute after coming on as a half-time substitute against Manchester United last month. But the man whose dramatic late equalizer inspired Liverpool to victory in the 2006 FA Cup final is now available again and match-sharp, although Rodgers wouldn’t confirm whether Gerrard would be a starter.
“He's definitely ready," Rodgers said at his pre-match press conference, according to Liverpool’s official website. “We played a behind-closed-doors game here on Monday, which he and a few of the other players that have been out played in. Steven's fine. The most important thing is his availability. He's a special footballer, Steven, and Wembley is somewhere he knows very well. So whether he plays or doesn't play, he'll be a very important member of the squad for us on the day.”
Much of Liverpool’s run in the FA Cup has been surrounded by talk of destiny, with the final coming on the same day as Gerrard’s 35th birthday to potentially give him the chance for a fairytale ending before he joins LA Galaxy. Yet Gerrard has played just 27 minutes in the first team in more than two months, and he was not immediately brought back into the lineup after recovering from injury in March. While there may have been a greater temptation to call upon his talismanic presence after Liverpool suffered costly defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal, Liverpool have returned to winning ways in their last two outings against Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United.
Likely a stronger contender to return to the side is Martin Skrtel, who, like Gerrard, is also back from a suspension picked up against Manchester United. His chances of featuring are enhanced by a hamstring injury that will rule fellow center-back Mamadou Sakho out until next month.
Whoever lines up in defense for Liverpool will have to try and negate the threat posed by in-form Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke. After struggling throughout the season, the Belgian has been reinvigorated by the arrival of manager Tim Sherwood and has struck seven goals in his last six appearances. Indeed, Benteke is responsible for the last five goals Villa have scored. They included a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw with Queens Park Rangers as well as the winner at Tottenham to help ease Villa clear of the relegation zone. While still not safe from the drop, Sherwood has suggested that his players will be invigorated by getting away from the battle at the wrong end of the table.
“It's a very exciting game,” he said, reports Aston Villa’s official website. “It's a great opportunity for this club to get to a FA Cup final. It won't be a very good feeling if we lose. I have lost a few FA Cup semi-finals before myself. It's not a great feeling.
“We go in there with a positive frame of mind. It's not the relegation stakes on Sunday, it's about us maybe getting some glory for the football club. It's the same mindset as always -- impose ourselves and win the game. That's what we intend to do.”
Prediction: There should be goals at Wembley on Sunday, with Liverpool still shaky defensively and Sherwood a manager who likes his teams to play an open, positive style. Dealing with the physicality and pace of Benteke will be a major challenge for a Liverpool defense that can often be soft under pressure, and it would be no surprise were his recent goal-scoring run to continue. But, with a change in formation, Liverpool have started to pick up their form once again in their last two matches, and they should be good enough to get through to the final.
Predicted score: Liverpool over Aston Villa, 2-1
Kickoff time: 10 a.m. ET
TV channel: Fox Sports 1