Stoke City head to Anfield currently sitting alone in eighth and unbeaten in their last four. Tony Pulis' side has managed success both domestically and in Europe, as they'll accompany the two Manchester sides in the first knockout round of the Europa League early next month. Liverpool will hope to continue their relative hot streak at home, during which they've scored eight goals in their last two matches at Anfield and finally found a way to finish chances.
If there's any sort of "break" in the January schedule, this is it---after Stoke's visit tomorrow Liverpool will have a full week until they head to Bolton, which provides something of a respite for an otherwise extremely crowded month. There's really nowhere to hide after the Bolton trip, with the second leg of the League Cup semi-final with City following four days later, the fourth round FA Cup match with United at Anfield three days after that, and the final league match of the month away to Wolves three days after that.
It's not quite as busy for tomorrow's guests, who don't pick back up in the Europa League until the second full week of February and have had a week to prepare after progressing past Gillingham 3-1 in the FA Cup third round. A difficult stretch is on the horizon, though, with five matches in 21 days in February, including United at Old Trafford and the two-legged tie with Valencia, who currently sit four points off Barcelona in La Liga and had a chance to advance in the Champions League before their capitulation at Stamford Bridge.
There won't be many people looking forward to Stoke's visit, as they handed Liverpool their first loss of the season in the reverse fixture despite conceding most of the posession and being outplayed for much of the match. Physicality and stealing your desire to continue living is their hallmark, though, and we can expect more of the same tomorrow, even if they've let in an uncharacteristically high number of goals in away fixtures this season---Sunderland, Arsenal, Bolton, and Manchester City have scored at least three goals while hosting Stoke, with Bolton setting the bar at five.
Away struggles aside, it's been a solid season thus far for much of Pulis' squad, at least in the sense that they've been successful at doing what's asked of them when it comes to strangling the life out of matches. Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters have started the last two league matches and provided three of the four goals they've scored, and Kenwyne Jones and Cameron Jerome provide support (but only two league goals) off the bench. The rest of the eleven, with the exception of Jermaine Pennant, is industrial and ugly and strong. Or at least until they're fouled, then it's owie time. Thomas Sorenson and Asmir Begovic have split time in goal, and there's been some combination of Ryan Shotton, Marc Walters, Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth, and Jonathan Woodgate at the back with Dean Whitehead, Matthew Etherington, and Glenn Whelan rounding out the midfield.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi
---There hasn't been any word about Jay Spearing's hamstring injury, but I'd guess that caution will be taken despite the fact that it leaves Liverpool without any sort of holding midfielder. They'll be without Lucas and Jack Robinson as well, and Luis Suarez is in the fourth match of eight-match ban.
---Given the amount of defending they had to do midweek, it wouldn't be a complete shock to see one of Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, or Daniel Agger rested, although barring fitness concerns it doesn't seem likely. The absence of Jose Enrique from the starting lineup was puzzling, but he's an easy enough pick to return to the eleven to round out a back line that's among the league's best.
---The injury to Spearing---which may or may not turn out to be that big of a deal---leaves Kenny Dalglish without a midfielder who's got any sort of reliable defensive sensibilities, meaning that unless Conor Coady is immediately promoted to first-team duty (I spied him in training pictures *wink wink*), we'll see Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson, and Steven Gerrard trying to fill the void. There's also a chance for Jonjo Shelvey, who's able to play a number of midfield roles, and if someone reanimates the corpse of Fabio Aurelio we could see the undead Brazilian as a stopgap. Just no Jamie Carragher, thanks.
---There's not an overwhelming number of option moving forward, either, with Stewart Downing and Craig Bellamy either featuring on short rest or making way for Dirk Kuyt and Maxi. It's more likely for Bellamy to rest than it is Downing, but I'm close to perma-rest mode for Downing, so I'll go with Kuyt and Maxi on either side of Gerrard, all in support of Andy Carroll, who's either a perfect fit against a physical back line or someone who's just going to play into their hands because he's not quick enough to turn them around. But he still works really hard you guys, in case you haven't heard.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
The biggest knock on Liverpool over the past few seasons---and this past year in particular---is that they're typically quite good at getting results against sides near the top of the table and typically quite shit at getting results against everyone that's not. Draws at home with Norwich, Swansea, Sunderland, and Blackburn don't leave us feeling particularly confident, even if Liverpool dominated each of those matches for long spells and missed a number of chances. But if they can carry over whatever sort of positive juju they found against Newcastle and Oldham, it's certainly a match we could and should expect them to win. But if it's 0-0 on 67 minutes, cover your eyes and ears.
No listing for British viewers right now, but stateside the match can be found on Fox Soccer Plus and FoxSoccer.tv, which both require a special subscription. That means it's to the streams for those of us without service and/or money, which will be healthily linked in the matchday thread that will run late tonight into early tomorrow. And I'll actually be around pre-match to run the team sheets when they're released, so look for those around an hour before kickoff.
Hope you all enjoy your Friday, and we'll see you back here first thing tomorrow.