09 April 2016

Liverpool v Stoke 04.10.16

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Live Extra

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Stoke aet (h; League Cup) 01.26.16
1-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 01.05.16
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.09.15
1-6 Stoke (a) 05.24.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Dortmund (a); 1-1 Tottenham (h); 2-3 Southampton (a)
Stoke: 2-2 Swansea (h); 2-1 Watford (a); 1-2 Southampton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 8; Benteke, Coutinho 7; Milner 5; Sturridge 4; Lallana 3; Henderson, Ings, Lallana, Origi 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Skrtel, Toure 1
Stoke: Arnautovic 10; Bojan 6; Walters 5; Diouf, Joselu 4; Shaqiri 3; Afellay 2; Imbula 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Lovren Sakho Smith
Stewart Allen
Ibe Firmino Milner

How much does this match matter?

Liverpool probably aren't finishing any higher than sixth, and seventh seems more likely. That's *maybe* Europa League qualification – which, although it's been a really fun ride this season, often causes more harm than good as far as contending in the league goes.

Emre Can's suspended. Jordan Henderson's injured. And there will almost certainly be multiple players rested with an eye on what's Liverpool's most important match of the season, to come on Thursday.

So it's difficult to predict what Liverpool will do tomorrow.

Both Lucas and Stewart are back in training, but probably aren't fully fit. Which makes a midfield of Allen/Milner the most likely option, but I'm hopeful that Stewart, or Lucas (to a lesser extent), is available.

Otherwise, give Lallana, Coutinho, Origi, Clyne, and Moreno the day off, one or two to be used off the bench if really needed. Bring both Sturridge and Firmino back into the XI. Continue with the 4-2-3-1/4-4-2ish formation that, Dortmund notwithstanding, we've usually seen. Use either Ibe, or even Ojo, as a replacement wide attacker. Use this match as an opportunity for some young and out-of-favor players, but don't completely tank it either. The final league position, whether sixth or ninth or anywhere in between, may not matter much, but a bit of positive momentum going into a massive home match against Dortmund certainly matters.

Meanwhile, Stoke currently sit two points and one place ahead of Liverpool in the table, having played two more games. They've lost some of the Stokealona aura, only joint-12th in goals scored this season and inconsistent in recent form, very much not helped by injuries. In the last month, they've drawn twice (at Chelsea and against Swansea), lost to Southampton, and beat Watford. It's all been very upper mid-table. Which is pretty much what Liverpool have been as well.

Cameron, Shaqiri, and Shawcross are questionable. Arnautovic, Johnson, and Whelan are doubtful. Butland, Walters, and Wilson will definitely be absent. Eight of those nine players are usual starters.

So, like Liverpool, it's difficult to guess Stoke's XI, if for different reasons. Let's just assume most of the questionable players will be fit, as well as Arnautovic, just because he's so crucial to Stoke, responsible for 10 goals and five assists. Which would make the XI something like Haugaard; Cameron, Shawcross, Wollscheid, Pieters; Imbula, Afellay; Shaqiri, Bojan, Arnautovic; Joselu.

Maybe Bardsley keeps his place at right back, with Cameron in midfield (in place of Shaqiri or Bojan, sitting deeper with Imbula and Affelay further forward) or at center-back. Maybe Mame Biram Diouf starts up front rather than Joselu. Stoke still have options, but those options are much more limited than when these sides met in the League Cup semi-final.

Regardless of each's personnel, except this match to go how the others have gone: a fairly even but fairly sterile match with few chances and few goals. Both sides will have spells of possession, although Liverpool will undoubtedly have more. Stoke will have chances on the counter and on set plays.

Liverpool and Stoke have played each other three times this season. The away side has won 1-0 in each of those meetings. Coutinho's league goal was a shot from nowhere that somehow went in. Ibe and Arnautovic's League Cup goals both came from counter-attacks, with Arnautovic's also very offside.

Stoke will want to continue that away win trend, and even the score after their disheartening League Cup loss on penalties, a result which preceded a three-match losing streak.

Liverpool will want to get through this, by hook, crook, or luck. Just do the job, and hope that players who don't usually start take their chance to impress. Klopp won't let his side look past this match, but we're all aware what's most important for Liverpool this week.

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