12:30pm ET, live in the US on FSC
Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 01.16.10
4-0 Liverpool (h) 08.19.09
0-0 (a) 01.10.09
0-0 (h) 09.20.08
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Wigan (a); 2-0 Chelsea (h); 3-1 Napoli (h)
Stoke: 3-2 Birmingham (h); 0-2 Sunderland (a); 0-1 Everton (a)
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard 3; Kyrgiakos 2; Kuyt, Maxi, Ngog 1
Stoke: Jones 3; Fuller, Huth 2; Delap, Faye, Tuncay, Walters, Whitehead 1
Referee: Mark Halsey
Guess at a line-up:
Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Meireles Gerrard Lucas Maxi
Another away match, in a tougher venue than Wednesday's, with an exhausted first XI on short rest. Fun times.
The good news is that Kyrgiakos should return from a bout with tonsillitis. He scored the only goal Liverpool's registered at the Britannia Stadium since Stoke's promotion, and his height, strength, and aerial ability are crucial against a physical, bullying side.
The bad news is that Johnson, Agger, and Cole all remain injured. Coupled with fitness concerns over the recently-returned Kuyt and Meireles' illness, it leads to questions over who'll man the right flank. Hopefully, Raul's recovered. Otherwise, the best argument is for Kuyt on the right and Torres/Ngog up top, to match Stoke's shape and include a striker who enjoys playing with his back to goal and holding up the ball. Torres cannot be left isolated as we saw against Wigan, and as happened all too often during Liverpool's shaky start to the season.
Despite the tough slate of games during this week, I don't expect much rotation. Aside from assuming that Carragher will shift to right back, both to spell Kelly and allow Soto to partner Skrtel, I expect the same XI as against Chelsea and Wigan. Let's just hope they're somehow fresher, and more up for it, than on Wednesday.
In 16th, three points behind Liverpool, Stoke are still Stoke, even if they've only won once in their last five games. Each of the recent losses – at Sunderland, at Everton, v United, at West Ham – have been close, hard-fought games, and they could have gotten something from the Sunderland and Everton games if not for questionable refereeing decisions. Which Liverpool's more than familiar with. Tuesday's win over Birmingham was surprisingly open – a 3-2 victory – but unsurprisingly direct – crosses, long balls, and counters, straight out of the Tony Pulis handbook.
Former Liverpool player Jermaine Pennant's been in surprisingly decent form – having target-men such as Fuller and Jones suits him to a tee – while Delap's long throws and Huth's nose for goal on set plays are always threats. Stoke will most likely play a standard 4-4-2, with Jones and either Fuller or Walters up front, Etherington and Pennant (or possibly Tuncay) on the flanks, Delap and Whitehead in the middle, and a backline of Huth, Shawcross, Collins, and Faye.
If Liverpool concede possession and sit deep, we could be in for a repeat of Wednesday's ugliness. Stoke would love nothing more than to retain possession and rely on Delap's long throws and crosses from the flank – most likely Liverpool's left – to agitate an often wobbly defense. And while I haven't looked up the stats, I'd imagine that the majority of goals Liverpool have conceded have come from crosses – as happened with Rodallega's equalizer and could have happened with Malouda's point-blank strike were it not for Pepe Reina.
Liverpool cannot approach this as they did the away matches against Bolton or Wigan, or they'll almost assuredly be punished for it. The team needs to play with ambition – to play like they're Liverpool – and deserve to be in the top half of the table, let alone amongst the top teams in the league. Not to mention to atone for Wednesday's failures.