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Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 03.18.12
0-0 (h) 01.14.12
2-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 10.26.11
0-1 Stoke (a) 09.10.11
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-2 Norwich (a); 2-1 West Brom (a)
Stoke: 2-0 Swansea (h); 0-1 Chelsea (a); 1-1 City (h)
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel 1
Stoke: Crouch 4; Kightly, Walters 1
Referee: Lee Mason
Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Skrtel Agger Johnson
Sterling Suarez Borini
Much of Liverpool's line-up writes itself in the Premier League, in contrast to the guessing games needed to forecast the Europa League and League Cup line-ups. Suarez, Gerrard, Allen, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, and Reina are certainties to start when fit. Şahin and Sterling are close to that category, having seized their opportunities when given the chance earlier in the season, the former aided by Shelvey's red card against United, the latter by Liverpool's lack of depth on the flanks.
Which seemingly leaves two places up for grabs. Borini is only recently back from an ankle injury, and again underwhelmed when starting as the central striker against Udinese. I'm hesitant to criticize the player because of his inexperience, both at Liverpool and in general – it's easy to forget he's just 21, an age belied by his often-clever movement – and having to shift from flank to flank to center, without a settled position. But to say he's had a disappointing start to his Liverpool career would be putting it mildly.
The alternatives are Assaidi, Downing, and Suso. Downing was the better of the two wingers against Udinese – and would allow Sterling to play on his preferred flank, although the 17-year-old has improved in his last two matches on the right – but Downing is still Downing. We saw the inconsistency that will probably trouble Assaidi for most of the season in Thursday's Europa League match: he'll give defenders nightmares, as against West Brom, then go missing for long spells next time out. Such is the life of mercurial wingers. Suso might be the best option, impressive against Norwich, and like Downing, would allow Sterling to start on the left. Still, if Borini's physically capable of playing, I expect Rodgers to start him.
The second question is the full-back berth opposite Johnson. Enrique's probably still a match or two away from fitness, although it's been hard to keep up-to-date with his travails. Robinson was excellent against Udinese – arguably Liverpool's best player (at least starter, until Suarez came on) – but asking an inexperienced, injury-prone, 19-year-old to play two matches in four days may be asking too much. Like with Suso, the most-inexperienced teenager, 18-year-old Andre Wisdom, may be the best option. Wisdom's been a safe, reliable choice in all three of his starts so far this season, and his height and strength would be of extra benefit against Stoke's set plays. In addition, Glen Johnson's actually looked better when playing on the left so far this season. He offers less going forward from that side, but we haven't seen any of the debilitating defense errors like those on display against Arsenal and Udinese either.
It's been four painful years since Stoke won promotion. You know what you will get with Tony Pulis' side. The Potters started the season with four successive draws, including a controversial 1-1 against Manchester City where Stoke battled well to hold City to a lone set play goal but were lucky to tally one of their own, a Crouch handball ignored in the build-up to his opener. Those draws were followed by a narrow loss at Chelsea when conceding after 85 minutes of determined resistance and a fairly comfortable 2-0 win over no-longer-shockingly-potent Swansea.
And then there's the added twist of Adam, Crouch, Pennant, and Owen. So many ex-Reds who could stick the knife in. Crouch is a certain starter, far and away Stoke's best scorer, while Adam's almost guaranteed as well if he's over a shoulder injury suffered against Swansea. Pennant's been out-of-favor for most of the season, with Walters, Kightly, and Etherington preferred on the flanks. Owen has come off the bench in just two of Stoke's seven matches: a two-minute jog in the draw against City and 30 indifferent minutes – often as a deep-lying support striker – against Chelsea.
Pulis' most likely line-up is Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson; N'Zonzi, Whelan; Walters, Adam, Kightly; Crouch. Whelan, like Adam, will be a late decision due to a hamstring injury; if he can't play, I suspect Adam will drop deeper with Walters playing centrally and Etherington or Pennant coming in on the flank. It's been interesting to see Pulis use Adam higher up the pitch, both to get him more involved in the attacking third and to reduce the turnovers and silly tackles which plagued his Liverpool tenure. American Reds will recognize Geoff Cameron, most likely at right-back, sometimes deployed as a defensive midfielder, even though he's become a first-choice center back for the national side.
Liverpool need to find a way to be as potent as against Norwich – half as potent would still be an improvement on the usual – while cutting out the costly concessions that have scarred every single match outside of the Europa League qualifiers. It has now been 10 matches since Liverpool last held an opponent scoreless in the league, the longest spell that I can remember since starting this blog. Going back to 2000-01 (as far back as I was willing to look, honestly), the next closest streak was eight league matches without a clean sheet from January-March 2005. Needless to say, it's been quite some time.
Rodgers has admirably attacked Liverpool's problems in midfield and up front, implementing his possession-based system ahead of schedule, leading to a more fruitful goal return compared to last season's constant profligacy (even if there was nowhere to go but up). Now, the focus needs to be on fixing the rearguard while continuing the progress made in other areas.