Liverpool won the Premier League by a country mile last season whereas Aston Villa stayed up by a single point, but there is little chance of Jürgen Klopp taking anything for granted at Villa Park on Sunday evening.
Villa gave a still-unbeaten Liverpool one of their biggest frights of the early part of last season, leading for most of the game and being pegged back only in the 87th minute before Sadio Mané – who misses this match after testing positive for Covid-19 – sealed victory in the fourth minute of added time.
“It’s a tough place to go,” Klopp said at the time, though that was when fans were still helping provide a hostile atmosphere. There will be no support from the Holte End this time, though Villa have won their two games and Klopp insists they have progressed. “Everybody has improved,” he says. “But Bertrand Traoré and Ross Barkley are very good players and they will offer Villa something extra.”
Liverpool have won their first three league matches and Klopp is looking to emulate last season’s start when they made a statement from the outset with eight straight wins. That is quite a standard to reach – Alex Ferguson always said he needed to look into his players’ eyes at the start of each title-defending season to check the hunger was still there – but Klopp has his own way of keeping his squad fresh and motivated.
“As a group we know we are enjoying the best time of our lives,” he says. “We have spoken about it and we are still doing it. I’m not in any doubt about the hunger and desire of my players. We are still in the right mood, and if we don’t succeed this season it will not be because we don’t want it enough.”
Liverpool went out of the Carabao Cup to Arsenal on Thursday, partly because Klopp had chosen to rest most of the side that beat the Gunners in a league game three days earlier. He did not expect any plaudits for doing that, but is surprised to be asked why he chose to field Virgil van Dijk and Mo Salah, two important players who could be in need of a rest at some stage in this compressed season.
“I would have never heard the last of it if I had rested everybody and sent out a whole teams of kids,” he says. “I already have an image as a cup-ignoring manager.
“I felt I needed to put out a side capable of matching Arsenal, which we did in the actual game, and there was no problem with Virgil or Mo being asked to play. Most of the boys here want to play in every game, but it’s my job to be a little bit more careful.
“The actual plan was to play those two for the first 45 minutes only, but it ended up an hour. That’s what can happen to plans, especially in these times. Quite often there’s no perfect solution, you just have to look instead for the best possible one.”