3pm eastern. No live showings in the US (delayed on FSC at 8pm Thursday); if you're looking for streams, I'll be checking here, here, and here tomorrow.
Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 01.10.09
0-0 (h) 09.20.08
8-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 11.29.2000
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.25.1994
Referee: Peter Walton
Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun
The sky is falling! And now, Liverpool’s up against a team that twice stymied them last season. Might as well just call it quits.
This is one of those games where Liverpool will have to unlock one of those eminently frustrating packed defenses. And yes, I’m suggesting nearly the same line-up that delivered such a dazzling display on Sunday.
To some extent, Benitez’s hand is forced. Injuries to Aurelio, Agger, and potentially Skrtel hinder the “possibilities” in those positions. With two of the three top center backs out, Liverpool’s lucky to be playing Stoke. The team could have done without both CBs and Reina last year at Anfield, although, hopefully, this one won’t end 0-0. Rumor has it the reason Riera missed Sunday’s match is because he attended Dani Jarque’s funeral, not because of the injury picked up in preseason.
It’s a toss-up between Riera and Benayoun on the left, as I assume Sunday’s performance ruled out Babel starting. This might be one of those games tailor-made for Benayoun, with his clever feet and eye for the throughball, but I think I’d rather Riera. Benayoun can change the game off the bench, and I still think he’s better suited in the middle or on the right. Even though crosses from the flank may not be the best tactic with Stoke packing their own penalty area, Liverpool will still need to be able to stretch the field and use the full width to open up space.
If Skrtel can’t go – and today's quotes from Rafa make me more optimistic than earlier reports – it’ll be Ayala or Kelly drafted in. I cannot wait for Danny Agger to return, and I’d have the Dane back in the line-up as soon as he’s healthy, my biases toward the player not withstanding. Agger’s simply the best of the lot at bringing the ball out of defense.
Carra’s always had a proclivity for lumping it forward, but it felt like even more of those balls were played on Sunday, and that’s probably not coincidence given it was Liverpool’s first game without Alonso. Sometimes, as with Torres’ stunning goal against Blackburn last season, it works. Other times, like against a sturdy pairing such as Bassong and King, not so much. I have a feeling it’s not the way to go against a packed Stoke defense either. I’m not necessarily saying Carra should be left out (I’m nowhere near that brave), I’m just saying Agger should be a nailed-on starter if fit. And I’m glad I’m not the one to decide between Carra and Skrtel.
Insua didn’t have the best of games on Sunday, but I doubt that means Dossena will replace him. One, and I don’t mean to relentlessly bash Babel, but Insua had to overcompensate for the Dutchman’s ineffectiveness and was burned by it. Two, Lennon’s pace caused him problems, but no one in Stoke’s squad offers that threat. I worry much less about Insua with either Benayoun or Riera in front of him.
Of course, after the tame performance two days ago, Stoke’s up next. Stifling, infuriating Stoke, a team that Liverpool failed to score against at both times of asking last season. The good news is if Liverpool wins tomorrow, they’ve bettered last season’s performance in the two respective fixtures. The bad news is it’s Stoke, and we’ve yet to see Benitez’s side break them down.
Stoke played well in their opener against Burnley, but – and I mean this in the nicest way possible – a lot of teams will put two past Burnley at home (we'll see if I just jinxed Liverpool on 9/12). However, what worries is that both of Stoke’s goals came from set plays. First, Shawcross rose highest to head home a free kick (Bassong, anyone?). The second came from a trademark Delap throw-in that unsettled the defense into an own goal. Gulp.
So, all Liverpool has to do is unlock a packed defense and prevent stupid set-play goals. Easy, right?