LIVERPOOL, December 28 – Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has told his team that last weekend's win over Wolves will count for little unless they defeat fourth-placed Premier League rivals Aston Villa.
Wednesday’s match at Villa Park sees the Reds, five points off a top four spot that would secure a Champions League place next season, look to build on a recent run of two wins in their last three matches.
Whereas the ‘Big Four’ of champions Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool were once considered to be a ‘closed shop’, the emergence this season of Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City has freshened things up at the top of the table.
But Benitez was unrepentant for saying Liverpool, who came through a nervy match to beat Wolves 2-0, would definitely finish in the top four this term.
"People keep asking me why I said recently that I would categorically guarantee that we will be in the top four – but what do you expect from me?
"I have to say that. We have confidence and we have to do it because we are a top side."
Villa’s impressive run of results came to a halt with Sunday’s 3-0 loss away to third-placed Arsenal and Benitez said: "After the win over Wolves, we will now have more confidence and that will be very good for the whole team.
"But we know we have to keep winning to get fourth place. We need clean sheets and we now have to be ready for Aston Villa.
"We must discover if we have the confidence now to win there and to get closer to the top of the table."
Liverpool will still be without the suspended Javier Mascherano, and Benitez must decide whether to persist with Alberto Aquilani in midfield and whether he should recall Dirk Kuyt, who was rested against Wolves.
Meanwhile Villa boss Martin O’Neill said the way in which Arsenal had overhauled his side last season to claim a top four place would give Liverpool hope of doing something similar this term.
"I heard Arsenal were supposed to be imploding last season, just about February time, when I think they were in the middle of a 22-game unbeaten run!," recalled O’Neill.
"They finished the season very, very strongly and Liverpool are capable of doing the same thing. They are capable because it’s Liverpool Football Club.
"Look at Arsenal now. Four weeks ago they were being written off for the title and now they are right bang in there."
Meanwhile O’Neill brushed aside suggestions the Arsenal defeat would do lasting damage to Villa’s morale.
"I didn’t get too carried away when we went to Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago and won there (against Manchester United)," he said.
"It was three points, it was a boost to confidence and it was terrific. It changed a desperately poor record for us there as well, our first win there for 26 years.
"But equally any side can go to Arsenal and get beaten, so I wouldn’t start to think the result was a major shock all over Europe."
Villa will be without suspended England winger Ashley Young, who has started all 19 league games this term, against Liverpool after he received his fifth yellow card of the season at the Emirates Stadium.