Liverpool V Aston Villa at Anfield : Match Preview
Liverpool V Aston Villa - view commentary, squad, and statistics of the game live.
Rodgers: We're stronger now
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers believes the criticism levelled at his players this season has actually helped their progress and he now setting their sights on second-placed Manchester City.
After the club's worst start to a campaign for more than a century the Reds now sit just four points behind fourth-placed Everton, with their record over the last 11 matches bettered only by the top two of Manchester United and City.
But having seen his players criticised early in his Anfield reign Rodgers now believes they should now not be restricting themselves to thinking purely about securing Champions League qualification.
"They have been hammered left right and centre by numbers of people," said the Northern Irishman. "When you are a club that is the size of Liverpool then that criticism comes.
"It is well documented, which is incredible really, but when you have won the titles and championships you have before that will come your way.
"But I was quite calm because their focus and concentration has been first class, our mentality was very much relaxed as we can only worry about ourselves.
"The cause we created here was to continue to fight. We know what will come our way when you don't win games and we are trying to still improve so the feeling was fine.
"You can see in their performances it hasn't affected them and, if anything, we have grown from that and it has been the lever for us to continue to work well.
"Everyone has their opinion on Liverpool and I understand that because of the standards set by this club in the 1970s and 1980s.
"But for a club that has been very poor and disastrous by all accounts from other people we lie four points off top four. For me the ambition is to grow higher. We are 11 points off second and that can all turn around very quickly so you need to get consistency - and that is what we have at the minute."
Top scorer Luis Suarez returns after a one-match suspension for the visit of Villa, with defender Jose Enrique Liverpool's main injury doubt.
The Spaniard was forced off with a hamstring injury in the first half of last weekend's victory at West Ham but will be given as long as possible to prove his fitness.
Meanwhile, Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert is demanding goals from all areas of his team as he comes to terms with being without record signing Darren Bent for the festive programme.
Bent will be sidelined "for a few weeks" after suffering a hamstring injury during Villa's 4-1 midweek win at Norwich in the Capital One Cup.
Andreas Weimann came off the bench to effectively replace Bent with a two-goal blast at Carrow Road and is described by Lambert as "a natural finisher".
But Lambert knows the importance of players chipping in from all areas of the pitch as Villa look to improve on a tally of 12 goals in 16 Barclays Premier League matches at Liverpool.
Lambert confirmed: "Darren went for a scan and has got a problem with a hamstring that will keep him out for a few weeks.
Asked if the striker would miss the Christmas programme, Lambert said: "Yes, probably the way it is looking. Maybe four weeks.
"It's a blow for him. In football you just never know when it might happen on the pitch. I saw him do it but we have just to get it healed."
Weimann, Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor have shouldered the responsibility for the majority of Villa's goal output, although Brett Holman has netted twice in the last three games.
But Lambert said: "You are looking for goals all over the pitch. It's not just about Christian, Andreas and Gabby.
"You have got to spread it out if you can. The way we are playing we are certainly creating chances, which is the pleasing thing.
"You just hope the lads will be confident enough to go and take them."
Villa midfielder Ashley Westwood is available after being cup-tied for the triumph at Norwich and defenders Joe Bennett and Enda Stevens are also back in contention after recovering from knee and ankle injuries respectively and returning to training.
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