12pm ET (stupid daylight saving time), live in the US on FSC
Liverpool: 6-1 Brighton (h); 2-1 United (a); 5-1 Oldham (h)
Stoke: 2-0 Crawley Town (a); Derby (a); Gillingham (a)
Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 01.14.12
2-1 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 10.26.11
0-1 Stoke (a) 09.10.11
2-0 Liverpool (h) 02.02.11
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Everton (h); 0-1 Sunderland (a); 1-2 Arsenal (h)
Stoke: 0-1 Chelsea (a); 1-0 Norwich (h); 2-0 Swansea (h)
Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Suarez 10; Bellamy 9; Gerrard 7; Carroll 6; Kuyt, Maxi, Skrtel 4; Adam 2; Agger, Downing, Henderson, Johnson, Kelly, Shelvey 1
Stoke: Crouch 10; Walters 9; Jerome, Jones 6; Etherington, Huth, Shotton 3; Delap, Shawcross, Upson, Whelan 2; Fuller, Pugh, Whitehead 1
Referee: Kevin Friend
Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Skrtel Enrique
Henderson Gerrard Adam Downing
Suggesting that Liverpool keep the same XI which demolished Everton is all well and good, and incredibly tempting, but Stoke presents different problems than a surprisingly-indifferent Everton did on Tuesday.
This will be the fourth time Liverpool have faced the Potters this season, meeting twice in the league and the 5th round of the Carling Cup. Liverpool have tried to solve Stoke's tactical conundrums in different ways this season, with various levels of success.
It's fairly safe to assume Dalglish won't deploy three center-backs again, as in the 0-0 Anfield meeting. Not only did that formation woefully disappoint, but Suarez is back from suspension and Carroll should (and needs to) start again. Liverpool played 4-4-2 in the other two meetings, both at the Britannica, with Suarez and Carroll up top, Henderson on the right, and a center-back at full back either for added height or because of injury to the usual starter. Liverpool won the Carling Cup tie thanks to two brilliant second half goals from Suarez, and should have won the league fixture but spurned somewhere in the region of 25 shots at goal.
I expect we'll see a similar set-up tomorrow. And I expect the lone change to be Charlie Adam back in the side – mostly because Charlie Adam's been in the side so often – as his overambitious long passing could help open up an assuredly compact and defensive Stoke. Spearing would make way, with an out-and-out defensive midfielder less necessary against very vertical opposition. I also suspect Carragher will keep his place, but Coates did well against Stoke in both the Carling Cup tie and the Anfield meeting.
Regardless of the solution, Liverpool will need to replicate the newly-discovered cutting edge displayed against Everton. Liverpool's first goal against the Blues bore some striking similarities to Suarez's opener against Stoke in the Carling Cup: a quick, end-to-end break involving a clutch of attackers and smart pass-and-move play. That sort of fast-paced football – where Liverpool has looked its most potent – will be necessary against a side that will dig deep into its own half and dare Liverpool to carve them open.
Johnson and Agger will again miss out, most likely joined by Bellamy, who sat out the midweek match with a knock. Stoke's only absentee appears to be Ricardo Fuller, suspended after a sending off at Stamford Bridge.
The Potters have won two of their last three, but that comes amid a run of six losses in nine matches since the end of January. The three victories during the last six weeks were over Crawley in the FA Cup and two promoted sides at home. Two promoted sides which Liverpool could only draw at Anfield, I hesitate to add. Stoke were in 8th at the end of January but now sit 13th, as fatigue caught up following good runs in the Europa League and both domestic cups. Nonetheless, Liverpool know full well how difficult it is to beat Tony Pulis' side, a side with Wembley experience after making the final in this competition last season and a side will fight furiously to return there in this campaign.
Liverpool's cup runs have partly overshadowed the depressing league campaign, with the side unbeaten in ten knockout ties. While those cup runs have tempered frustration and begat much-needed optimism, there's still the small matter of Liverpool's overwhelming inconsistency. The three ties against Stoke have been this season in a microcosm: one loss where Liverpool deserved to win but couldn't score, one mostly-deserved home draw because Liverpool never looked like scoring, and an excellent cup victory because Liverpool were able to overhaul an early and unfortunate deficit for a change.
Just as important as advancing to Wembley for the second time this season is putting together a run of form, building on the positives from Tuesday's comprehensive victory. While Champions League qualification and overall improvement in the league increasingly looks a lost cause, Liverpool need to use these final months to create consistency. Getting back to Wembley would simply be an added bonus. Admittedly, a very big bonus.