26 December 2016

Liverpool v Stoke 12.27.16

12:15pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (h) 04.10.16
0-1 Stoke (a; League Cup) 01.26.16
1-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 01.05.16
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.09.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Everton (a); 3-0 Boro (a); 2-2 West Ham (h)
Stoke: 2-2 Leicester (h); 0-0 Southampton (h); 1-3 Arsenal (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 8; Lallana 6; Coutinho, Firmino, Milner 5; Origi 4; Can 3; Lovren 2; Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Stoke: Allen 5; Bojan, Shaqiri 3; Bony 2; Adam, Arnautovic, Muniesa, Walters 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Klavan Milner
Lallana Henderson Wijnaldum
Mané Origi Firmino

All things being normal, it'd still be more difficult to guess tomorrow's XI than usual. Not only will Liverpool play Manchester City four days after this, then Sunderland two days after that, both Sturridge and Can should be available to start after substitute appearances at Everton. And I'd expect that both will get at least one start over the next week. *Insert complaining about packed festive season being even worse for Liverpool here*

And all things aren't quite normal, as Firmino was arrested and charged with drink driving early on Christmas Eve. I can't imagine the club are too happy with that, and wouldn't be surprised to see him dropped. But maybe the club don't punish him until the courts do; that's what happened to Yaya Toure earlier this month.

Matip will likely be left out for at least one more match. Coutinho will likely miss this and the next at best. So, your guess is probably as good as mine. Tomorrow's line-up will better inform how Liverpool intend to cope with games flying fast and thick, as well as with the lingering injuries and Firmino's potential punishment. I'll guess "same as the last two" for seeming lack of a more obvious option, but I expect at least one or two differences, whether it's Sturridge in place of either Firmino or Origi, Wijnaldum or Lallana moving into the front three, or something even more left-field, such as a 4-4-2 diamond. A front six something like Henderson; Wijnaldum, Can; Lallana; Sturridge, Origi.

While it's tempting to focus on Saturday's match as the most meaningful – which it is! – and reckon that if Liverpool are going to "rest" players they may well do so tomorrow, neither Stoke nor Sunderland will let it be easy for Liverpool.

Stoke remain hard to figure out. Their squad suggests that they should be a fair bit higher than 12th in the table, albeit only three points behind seventh at the moment, but they've had a tough time with injuries. They failed to win any of their first seven league matches, but have only lost two of their last ten, winning five and drawing three. But while they're not getting hammered by the likes of City, Tottenham, and Palace any more, none of the wins over the last ten-match stretch have been all that impressive: 2-0 over Sunderland (h), Hull (a), and Burnley (h); 3-1 v Swansea; 1-0 at ten-man Watford. They only faced three sides in the current top-10 during that stretch: 1-0 at tenth-placed Watford, 0-0 against seventh-placed Southampton, and 1-3 at fourth-placed Arsenal.

And this will be an especially not fun week for the Potters, traveling to Chelsea four days after facing Liverpool.

Joe Allen – wee Joe Allen! – is the club's top scorer with five goals. That's, uh, a bit surprising. Especially as it's one more league goal than Allen had in 91 league appearances for Liverpool. Here's to you, Jordan Henderson, because it'll primarily be the captain's job to mark Welsh Jesus.

My best guess for Stoke's XI remains their usual XI, aside from injuries and suspensions. Grant; Johnson, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Pieters; Imbula, Whelan; Shaqiri, Allen, Bojan; Walters. Wilfred Bony could start as the main striker – although he's been disappointing since joining from City on loan – with either Walters, Bojan, or Shaqiri dropping to the bench. Crouch, Bojan, and Diouf are other options up front, with Walters, Bojan, and Diouf all capable of playing out wide. And there's a remote chance that Charlie Adam plays in midfield.

Butland, Cameron, Bardsley, and Ireland are out injured, while Arnautovic is suspended.

'By any means necessary' is basically the festive season's motto. As Liverpool did at Everton a week ago. I remain concerned about Liverpool's ability to create and score chances without Coutinho. I will perpetually remain concerned about Liverpool's error-prone defense, no matter consecutive clean sheets. Liverpool squad remains a bit threadbare, but it's getting better at a very necessary time.

Whether Liverpool get "Good Stoke" or "Underperforming Stoke" will make an obvious difference, but we haven't seen Underperforming Stoke much over the last two months and even Underperforming Stoke won't be Horrific Stoke From This Fixture Last Season, a mid-April 4-1 stroll with Stoke having nothing to play for. Stoke have big in-the-way defenders, Stoke can counter, Stoke are good from set plays, Stoke have Lord Joe Allen. Prior to that whomping at Anfield, the away side had won the last three meetings in this fixture by a 1-0 margin.

This ain't gonna be easy. But it rarely is.

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