2:45pm ET, live in the US on FSC
Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 10.07.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 03.18.12
0-0 (h) 01.14.12
2-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 10.26.11
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Fulham (h); 1-3 Villa (h); 3-2 West Ham (a)
Stoke: 0-0 Tottenham (a); 1-1 Everton (h); 0-0 Villa (a)
Liverpool: Suarez 11; Gerrard 3; Skrtel 2; Agger, Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin, Sterling 1
Stoke: Crouch 4; Walters 3; Adam, Kightly 2; Jerome, Jones, Whitehead 1
Referee: Howard Webb
Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Downing Suarez Sterling
Blah blah blah cold, wet Wednesday night at Stoke. Merry Christmas indeed.
My biggest question is whether Rodgers sticks with the 4-2-3-1 midfield set-up used against Fulham. That was the usual formation during Lucas' injury, but once the Brazilian returned against Southampton, the midfield was reversed, with Gerrard and Allen ahead of Lucas against the Saints, West Ham, and Villa. And it worked well against Southampton, less so against West Ham, and vastly less so against Villa. Fulham's makeshift midfield almost assuredly made Liverpool look better than it had the right to last Saturday, but the balance was far better, while Gerrard in a deeper role provided more vertical, attacking passing than Allen or Lucas, while his trademark run from far outside the box led to the game-killing second goal.
That Joe Allen is fighting a knock in addition to being fatigued seems a good reason to rest him for a second successive match. If Liverpool stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation, he's also the most likely to make way. Gerrard thrived against Fulham, while Allen hasn't shown anywhere near enough in the final third to play in a similar position as Shelvey last Saturday. However, in theory, Henderson could replace Jonjo in that formation tomorrow: more dynamic than Allen, better able to keep possession (and a cool head) than Shelvey, although similarly ineffective in front of goal as Allen (and, sadly, as Shelvey's been of late).
However, that's more a wish than my "best guess" at a line-up. Reverting to the 4-1-2-3 with Gerrard and Allen ahead of Lucas, or Gerrard/Allen/Lucas in the 4-2-3-1 (probably with Gerrard as the attacking midfielder), or the same midfield as against Fulham seem just as likely as the above alternative, if not more so.
Downing deserves another chance to build on his increasing confidence, while Sterling should come back into the starting XI after finally being rested. Otherwise, as per usual, the lineup pretty much writes itself. The back four will be Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, and Enrique as long as the latter's properly adjusted to fatherhood; Gerrard will almost undoubtedly start again; and Suarez will be the central striker.
Liverpool haven't beaten Stoke at the Britannia in the league since Tony Pulis' side were promoted in 2008 – the lone win coming in the fourth round of the Carling Cup last season – drawing twice and losing twice. Meanwhile Stoke are unbeaten at home in the league this season, winning four (Swansea, QPR, Fulham, and Newcastle) and drawing four (Arsenal, City, Sunderland, and Everton) at the Britannia.
10 days ago, Liverpool conceded three times at home to the side that had scored the fewest goals in the Premiership. Tomorrow, they'll face another similarly goal-shy opponent; Stoke have the joint-fewest goals in the league, 15, along with Villa and QPR.
Liverpool are long since familiar with Stoke's tactics, although increasing familiarity hasn't made coping with it any easier. Defend deep; use elbows, studs, and borderline criminal tackles to full-effect; and play for the counter-attack: hoofing toward Crouch, using Walters and either Kightly or Etherington's speed on the flanks and crossing ability. In addition, given my constant focus on ex-players, Stoke are likely to start two of Liverpool's – Adam (back from leave after the sad, untimely death of his father) in a more attacking role than he ever played at Liverpool and Crouch up front, although the Gangly Handful has been used as a substitute in the last three matches (with Kenwyne Jones starting) since returning from injury.
Delap and Wilson are long-term casualties, while some guy named Michael Owen might finally be fit for once after injuring his hamstring (he still has hamstrings?) more than two months ago. Stoke's probable line-up has one or two changes from that which drew 0-0 at Tottenham on Saturday, something like: Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Wilkinson; N'Zonzi, Whelan; Walters, Adam, Kightly; Crouch.
Stoke has earned – more than earned – its label as one of the least likable clubs in the division. But, credit where due, Pulis has a game plan, signs the right players to get the most out of that game plan, and referees let them get away with that game plan. After the massive, much-needed moral boost against Fulham, an opponent that's given Liverpool so many fits over the last four years, away from Anfield, is a good test of just how well the sid has responded following the most recent nadir against Villa.