Liverpool will have to cope without Daniel Sturridge when they return to Premier League action at home to Aston Villa on Saturday. Sturridge is set to miss three weeks after picking up a thigh injury while on international duty with England, meaning that Liverpool will now have to make do without their two top scorers of last season, with Luis Suarez now ready to showcase his considerable talents in Barcelona. Sturridge’s injury, in the aftermath of a friendly against Norway, was one that particularly irked manager Brendan Rodgers.
“For him to pick up a thigh injury when he did was disappointing for us,” he said. “For us we’ve lost a player who was outstanding in our last game against Tottenham and we certainly feel it could have been prevented.”
The injury also means that there will be more early pressure than Rodgers surely would have liked on the shoulders of Mario Balotelli. The Italian made his debut two weeks ago following his £16 million move from Milan and, while he failed to score, he more than played his part in a convincing 3-0 victory over Tottenham. He has had plenty of time to get accustomed to his new surroundings and prepare for his Anfield bow, having being overlooked by new Italy boss Antonio Conte. It is an illustration that, to many, he has much to prove. Without Sturridge he will now have the platform to do just that.
Ahead of Liverpool’s return to the Champions League against Ludogorets on Tuesday, Rodgers will have to decide whether Balotelli starts alongside fellow summer arrival Rickie Lambert, or is another of the summer signings, Lazar Markovic, could make his first start as part of a forward three. Adam Lallana is also in contention to make his debut having had an outing in a behind-close-doors-friendly, although the former Southampton midfielder remains short of match fitness. Liverpool have other injury concerns, too, with Emre Can joining Sturridge in returning hurt from international duty and now being out for six weeks. Defenders Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson and Jon Flanagan also remain out.
While Sturridge was back at Liverpool, Aston Villa midfielder Fabian Delph was making his full England debut and earning much praise for his part in an encouraging 2-0 win in Switzerland in qualifying for Euro 2016. He could now lineup at Anfield alongside a man who not so long ago was a regular in the England midfield, Tom Cleverley. The 25-year-old has endured a torrid past 12 months, during which he has been used as a scapegoat by many Manchester United fans for the club’s fall from grace. He didn’t make the best first impression at his new club, either. It was reportedly only after a permanent move to Villa broke down over his wage demands that he sealed a loan deal after the deadline had passed. But Cleverley states that he is relishing the chance at Villa Park and the prospect of working with manager Paul Lambert and assistant Roy Keane.
“I see this as a good opportunity to get into the team hopefully, improve Villa and get my career back on that upward curve,” he said, according to Aston Villa’s official website. “To work with Paul and Roy too -- two top midfielders in their time -- hopefully can develop my game. That's a massive pull for me - two fantastic footballers who have won everything there is to win in club football. Hopefully their experience and knowledge of the position will help me progress this season.”
Aston Villa captain Ron Vlaar is expected to face a late fitness test on a calf injury, but fellow center-back Jores Okore is back in contention for his first appearance for Villa in almost exactly a year, having played in Denmark’s win over Armenia in midweek.
Prediction: Villa have provided tough opposition for Liverpool in recent times and, indeed, they have fared well against the top sides in general. It is no coincidence, with Villa far more comfortable sitting back at hitting teams on the break. Although they have started the season with an impressive seven points from three matches, they have hardly been thrilling to watch -- scoring three goals and conceding just one. Liverpool will find it hard to break through a packed midfield, but if Vlaar is not fully fit then Villa’s defense will be vulnerable and the home side, even without Sturridge, should secure a narrow win.
Liverpool 2-1 Aston Villa
Kickoff time: 12.30 p.m. EDT
TV channel: NBC
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra