Rafael Benitez has admitted that his side's hopes of making it back into the top four of the Premier League rest on overcoming the two sides who Liverpool face in consecutive matches, beginning with a defining fixture at Villa Park tonight.
Liverpool have not been in the top four since September, but during the 18 matches since the 6-1 win over Hull they have only faced one of the sides they believe are their main rivals for fourth spot – drawing 2-2 with Manchester City. Now they face Villa and Spurs in successive league games and have the return with Roberto Mancini's City in February. Benitez said: "If we can win at Villa we will gain more confidence for the future. Villa, Spurs and Manchester City are all doing well and we know we must compete with them for fourth place.
"We know, though, that this time it is more difficult. Previously Villa have done well in the first half of a season and then lost games. But they have spent some money, they have good players, and we accept that they will make it difficult for us in the fight for fourth position."
Benitez's injury concerns continue ahead of tonight's game. Alberto Aquilani's hamstring pull in the unconvincing Boxing Day win against Wolves means Benitez must wait to discover whether he will be available for a match Javier Mascherano will miss through suspension. Aquilani admitted his 85 minutes against Wolves had been tougher than he had expected. "It was so different to anything I have experienced, as it was so quick and you never really had much time. The football we played was so fast," he said. "We have an important game with Villa and we know that if we beat them we will be closer. Like I have said before, every game is like a cup final for us."
Martin O'Neill has refused to accept that Aston Villa's credentials as a potential top four club can be judged in how his side cope with playing both Arsenal and Liverpool in the space of two days. Villa were beaten 3-0 at Arsenal on Sunday, and tonight have the chance to respond to that defeat.
The Villa manager said: "I didn't get too carried away when we went to Old Trafford and won there. Any side can go to Arsenal and get beaten, but what we have to do is fight back against Liverpool and try to win. We beat them quite convincingly at Anfield, but that was a long time ago.
"I won't sit and concern myself about that. By the end of January we will have a better idea of where we stand and if we are good enough to be in this company. We are enjoying it immensely just being in there but it is a major effort to go again. We got in a decent position last year but didn't have the wherewithal to sustain it. I hope we have this year."