Stoke visit Anfield for the second time this season, with the two clubs facing each other for the fourth time overall, this time for a chance to progress to a Wembley semi-final. While Liverpool's form in domestic cup competition has been sparkling---the League Cup's already been secured and they've scored 13 goals in their three FA Cup wins---Stoke hasn't hasn't been much worse, and given the narrow finishes in their three previous fixtures this season, there's no reason to think that tomorrow will be any different.
Being a Liverpool supporter is a fascinating and disorienting experience. Less than a week ago, I was frustrated nearly to the point of no return. There wasn't much left to say about how bad Liverpool were playing, and with the complete surrender at the hands of Sunderland, I'd reached a nadir. Not only were their performances and results shithouse, they didn't seem like they were really bothered about any of it, and that made spending any time whatsoever on them a painful task.
And then they completely dominate Everton in an exceedingly important Merseyside Derby, Steven Gerrard nets a sublime opener on his way to a hat-trick, and all of a sudden everything is right in the world and I'm drawing up myriad scenarios that see Liverpool back at Wembley and clawing their way back into Champions League contention. Emotional lability isn't an option as a Liverpool supporter, it's a requirement.
But standing in the way of that next Wembley visit is a Stoke side that, no matter how much Kenny Dalglish might try to point to its effectiveness, plays a horrifically offensive brand of football. The same could be said about Liverpool at times this season, and that's fair, but this is what Stoke actually pride themselves on. Ugly, physical, knuckle-dragging slop. Catch the fever!
They've won each of their FA Cup ties by two goals, all away from the Britannia---first against Gillingham in the third round, then over Derby County, and most recently in a 2-0 win over Crawley Town. Their form in league has picked up after a dismal start to 2012, with wins over Swansea and Norwich immediately following their exit from the Europa League via the 0-2 aggregate result against Valencia. They lost at Chelsea in their last league outing and will be without Ricardo Fuller, who picked up a foolish red card for stomping Branislav Ivanovic in the loss at Stamford Bridge, but should otherwise be at full (and frustrating) strength.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Kelly Skrtel Coates Enrique
---Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson, and Lucas are all confirmed absences, and Fabio Aurelio and Jack Robinson are recovering from something or other. Craig Bellamy picked up some sort of knock that kept him out of the squad for Tuesday's match with Everton, and will apparently be a late decision.
---After the performance Tuesday, it'd make sense to see the exact same squad, even though Stoke ostensibly pose a much different task than a disaffected Everton side. In defense it's tempting to pick the same four, with Johnson out and Jamie Carragher partnering well with Martin Skrtel. I'd still like to see Sebastian Coates, though, and think his partnership with Skrtel is the best bet. Martin Kelly was superb against Everton and will no doubt feature at right back, with Jose Enrique starting on the left.
---Midfield, midfield, midfield. There's no guessing as to what Kenny Dalglish will do---there's hope that Jay Spearing holds his place from Tuesday, where he was terrific, but we're staring down the barrel of a Charlie Adam start after more than a week off. Spearing did everything Adam hasn't for Liverpool, in that he was responsible both with and without possession and had a consistently positive impact. I hope he partners with Steven Gerrard again, with Jordan Henderson in some sort of free-floating role that sees him more in the middle and less on the right. If it's a strictly right-sided role, I'm much more in favor of Dirk Kuyt.
---With Gerrard surging forward Luis Suarez finally looked to have some support from the midfield, and Andy Carroll's hold-up play and general effort were superb. The former's a lock to start, and there's no sense in holding Carroll out at this point. If and when Liverpool figure out how to actually get the best out of him, he's likely to have a positive enough impact, and I'll join the chorus of others calling for now to be the time that they figure it out. If you're prone to loudly proclaiming that he's not worth the price the club paid for him, just save yourself the breath. You're right, he wasn't, and you're super original for bringing it up. But on recent evidence it's somewhat possible that he can help Liverpool win, and that's probably an okay thing.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
Playing Stoke isn't a pleasant experience for anyone who's not a rugby squad, so I doubt this is a fixture many are looking forward to. None of the three earlier matches have been aesthetically pleasing, and on the whole Liverpool's struggled mightily to break down a defense that has little interest other than cramming as many bodies into their own penalty area as possible. That's Stoke to a tee, but if Liverpool can find a way to snag an early opener, they could find their way to a comfortable win. If Stoke get their set pieces and toweled throw-ins deep in the Liverpool half in a match that's level, it's not going to be pretty.
To do the exact opposite of what they did against Sunderland in every way, shape, and form.
Tomorrow's kickoff is scheduled for 4:00PM GMT/12:00PM EST, with ITV1 televising the match in England and Fox Soccer Channel airing it live in the US. We'll have the links for any streams that are available late tonight/early tomorrow morning, as well as any other listings that pop up for folks that are looking for ways to watch. Team sheets are released around an hour before kickoff and will be posted once they're available.
Hope you all have a nice start to the weekend, and we'll see you back here tomorrow.