04 January 2016

Liverpool at Stoke 01.05.16

3pm ET, live in the US on BeIN Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.09.15
1-6 Stoke (a) 05.24.15
1-0 Liverpool (h) 11.29.14
5-3 Liverpool (a) 01.12.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 West Ham (a); 1-0 Sunderland (a); 1-0 Leicester (h)
Stoke: 1-2 West Brom (a); 4-3 Everton (a); 2-0 United (h)

Previous Rounds:
Liverpool: 6-1 Southampton (a); 1-0 Bournemouth (h); 1-1 Carlisle aet [3-2 pens] (h)
Stoke: 2-0 Sheff Wed (h); 1-1 Chelsea aet [5-4 pens] (h); 1-0 Fulham (a); 1-1 Luton aet [8-7 pens] (a)

Goalscorers (League Cup):
Liverpool: Origi 3; Sturridge 2; Clyne, Ibe, Ings 1
Stoke: Walters 2; Affelay, Bardsley, Crouch 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Allen Lallana
Ibe Firmino Coutinho

Another match within three days of the last, another match where changes aren't really possible. Sturridge, Henderson, Origi, and Milner all remain absent, along with all the rest.

Even if Klopp wanted to rotate, there aren't many options. And they're the same options we've mooted and mostly discounted prior to the last few matches. Maybe Allen joins or replaces Lucas in midfield. Maybe Smith or Randall allow Clyne or Moreno a rest.

That Stoke is more likely to challenge Liverpool's dominance in possession, more likely to actually spend stretches attacking rather than focusing on a few counters and set plays, especially at home, might allow to Liverpool to again try Firmino up front in place of Benteke. I doubt we'd see 4-1 at City, but it should go better than 0-3 at Watford. That Benteke had his worst performance in his last three appearances at West Ham suggests fatigue – not that it isn't a team-wide concern – and could be another argument for Firmino up front, seeing as Liverpool don't have any other options at striker.

So let's go with the above guess. The more-mobile Can as the deepest midfield rather than Lucas; Allen and Lallana joining him to form something of a midfield three; Firmino, Ibe, and Coutinho as the front three. Get Coutinho closer to Firmino in hopes that it'll lead to better and more chance creation and final third interplay (and fewer Coutinho shots!), get Firmino further forward, use Ibe as an over-the-top or running-with-the-ball release valve. But a midfield of Lucas and Can behind three from Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, and Ibe with Benteke up front, again, is probably just as likely. It's not as if any formation or any players have cemented themselves lately.

After two seasons, Mark Hughes' Stoke is finally threatening to become Stoke 2.0. Stoke-alona. At their best, Stoke 2.0 is a reverse mullet: still business at the back, but with a party up front. They're unsurprisingly more vulnerable in defense than under Pulis – recently, conceding three at Everton a week ago and two at West Brom (the winning goal when down to 10 men) on Saturday – but Shawcross is still there, Wollscheid's still there, Pieters is still there, Bardsley and Wilson are still there (even if both rarely start), while Jack Butland has become one of the best keepers in the league. Even Glen Johnson (!!!) has remembered how to play football.

They're a point behind Liverpool in the league, having scored one fewer – which certainly doesn't make them sound like an attacking firepower – and having conceded three fewer. But, with players like Bojan, Shaqiri, Arnautovic, and Affelay, when they actually put it together in attack, look out. Good thing Liverpool's not-at-all-error-prone defense is excellent against fast, tricky dribblers who look to face up and take on defenders, right? At least Klopp's familiar with Arnautovic, Shaqiri, Joselu, Affellay, and Diouf from matches against them with Dortmund.

Unlike Liverpool, Stoke have few injuries to worry about: only Muniesa might have started, with Ireland and Given also out.

Maybe we'll see more rotation because it's the League Cup and everyone has a packed fixture list, but Stoke have had a very set XI lately. If it's the same as it's been, it'll be Butland; Johnson, Shawcross, Wollscheid, Pieters; Cameron, Whelan; Shaqiri, Affelay, Arnautovic; Bojan for the fourth-straight match. Cameron won his appeal of Saturday's red card and will be available.

If Hughes decides to rotate, Van Ginkel or Adam could replace Whelan or Cameron; Walters is an option in any of the attacking positions; Joselu, Crouch, and Diouf are options up front; Wilson and Bardsley are options in defense. Stoke's XI in their last league cup match – a routine 2-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday – was Butland; Johnson, Wilson, Wollscheid, Pieters; Cameron, van Ginkel; Walters, Afellay, Arnautovic; Crouch. So, similar to the usual, but a couple of changes. As tomorrow's a semi-final, if only the first leg, I'd expect a stronger XI with fewer changes, festive schedule be damned.

We've reached the point in the competition where it stops being "just the League Cup" and starts being an excellent chance at a trophy, any trophy. Something that Liverpool have done just once since 2006 – in this competition, in 2011-12 – and something that Stoke haven't done in since winning this competition in 1971-72 (we're not counting winning League One or the Johnstone's Paint Trophy).

It's a chance that Liverpool haven't had often enough in recent years, a chance that Stoke rarely have. And for Liverpool, it's a chance for redemption after Saturday's nadir. A chance to put the last month's demons firmly in the past. A chance to prove there's actually a football team in here somewhere.

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