11 January 2014

Liverpool at Stoke 01.12.14

11:10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.17.13
1-3 Stoke (a) 12.26.13
0-0 (h) 10.07.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 03.18.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Oldham (h); 2-0 Hull (h); 1-2 Chelsea (a)
Stoke: 2-1 Leicester (h); 1-1 Everton (h); 0-3 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 20; Sturridge 9; Gerrard, Sterling 3; Coutinho, Skrtel 2; Agger, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho 1
Stoke: Adam 4; Assaidi, Crouch 3; Ireland 2; Arnautovic, Begovic, Cameron, Nzonzi, Pennant, Shawcross, Walters 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Cissokho
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Coutinho
Suarez Sturridge

Slowly, Liverpool are recovering from injuries incurred over the last six weeks. Agger, Allen, Enrique and Flanagan are still absent, but Sturridge and Sakho should be back.

There seems two options if Sturridge is only fit enough for the bench. Sterling keeping his place seems more likely, with Gerrard and Henderson ahead of Lucas and Sterling and Coutinho on the flanks, or with Coutinho as #10 and Henderson and Sterling on the flanks. But there's also a small, very small, chance that Aspas keeps his place, keeping Liverpool in the above formation with Aspas in place of Sturridge.

Otherwise, the team seems to write itself, thanks to continuing absences. Sakho returning immediately after Agger's injury seems a boon and he'll almost certainly partner Skrtel, Gerrard will also start after playing 75 minutes against Oldham, Johnson and Cissokho pretty much have to be the full-backs.

Stoke have won four, drawn five, and lost just one at home this season. And Liverpool haven't won a league match at the Britannia since Stoke were promoted six seasons ago, losing the last three after drawing the first two meetings, although Liverpool did win a fourth round Carling Cup tie there en route to picking up the trophy in 2011-12.

Incidentally, Stoke's three top scorers, the only players with more than two league goals, are all either ex-Liverpool players or, in Assaidi's case, current Liverpool players. Even Jermaine Pennant's scored for Stoke this season. Stoke and West Ham are in a neck-and-neck battle to be Liverpool's Island of Misfit Toys, and Stoke's in the lead. As he's still a current Liverpool's player, Assaidi's ineligible tomorrow. Which is very much a good thing, as he's Stoke's most in-form player, and has scored the only two league goals that Stoke have scored since Boxing Day. Pennant seems the most likely to replace him, but Etherington and Arnautovic are also possibilities.

Stoke, like every other side at the moment, also have a handful of injury issues, with Begovic out, and Ireland, Huth, Sorensen, and Wilkinson questionable. Which makes Stoke's most likely XI: Butland; Cameron, Shawcross, Wilson, Pieters; Whelan, Nzonzi; Walters, Adam, Pennant; Crouch. If Ireland's fit, Adam probably starts on the left.

Stoke may have added a bit more passing and possession to their quiver, a bit more intelligence in attack despite the continuing lack of goals, but Stoke are still Stoke: physical, tight at the back, and more than happy to clog the midfield like red and white striped intestinal blockage. In attack, Liverpool will rely on Sterling and Coutinho's respective pace and guile to open up space via the flanks, creating room for Henderson and Gerrard's runs from midfield and Suarez and maybe Sturridge's individual brilliance. And then hope not to be taken apart on counter-attacks and set plays, as has happened too often at the Britannia, and painfully happened just a month ago at Hull.

We've heard time and time again that this is a different season, that this is a better Liverpool. And results so far, on the whole, have demonstrated that. A win on Stoke's rugby pitch tomorrow – a ground where Chelsea lost, where City and Everton could only draw – would go a long way in reinforcing that notion.

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