Following a hard fought victory over League One side Oldham Athletic at Anfield, Brendan Rodgers now has a daunting trip to the Britannia, a place of seemingly perennial struggle for the Reds. After seeing some of his second-stringers fail to impress on Sunday, Rodgers will no doubt have to return to his strongest eleven – especially given a full week’s rest.
Stoke have actually gained some form and momentum recently, playing with a different style under Mark Hughes. In their previous home game, they were a few minutes away from an unlikely victory over in-form Everton, only for Jermaine Pennant’s moment of stupidity to rob Stoke of two extra points. Oussama Assaidi’s wonder strike in injury time gave Hughes’ men a famous win over Chelsea at the Britannia. Assaidi did put Stoke in the lead away to Newcastle only for two harsh red cards to throw that game firmly in the Magpies’ favour, culminating in a 5-1 defeat for Stoke.
One positive news for the Reds is the fact that on-form loanee Assaidi cannot play against his parent club, so that’s one less threat that has emerged for Stoke this season. However, for all of the talk that Hughes is getting his side to play on the ground more often, Stoke are still very much a physical side and one that capitalises on set-pieces, with Peter Crouch leading the line. With set-pieces being Liverpool’s achilles heel this season, Rodgers will have to find some way to sort that out.
Jon Walters and Stephen Ireland will be big threats Liverpool have to contend with. Steven N’Zonzi will be looking to dominate the midfield while Matthew Etherington will looks to cause problems and swing in crosses from the left. How should Rodgers set his side out then?
4-3-3 or Three At The Back?
The bad news that Daniel Agger’s injury, sustained against Oldham, might keep him out for a extended period of time has been balanced out by the return of Daniel Sturridge to training. Even as Iago Aspas got his first Liverpool goal last weekend, Sturridge’s return could not come any sooner.
Rodgers has a big problem now with both left-footed centre-backs out. Neither Martin Skrtel nor Kolo Toure looks comfortable playing at left centre-back, and away at Stoke, the difficulty will only be magnified. Nonetheless, both will start. Question is, will Rodgers switch to a back three?
Glen Johnson and Aly Cissokho are certain starters, and there might be some consideration that Martin Kelly – after getting through 90 minutes on Sunday – might come in at the right of the centre three to provide a little bit more height and defensive stability for Liverpool’s back line.
If Rodgers plays his usual formation, it is certain he will go with a midfield trio of Lucas, Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. With Sturridge likely to start from the bench, the usual trio of Philipp Coutinho, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez will get the nod.
If Rodgers goes three at the back, he will still want the solidity of having a three-men midfield. Though it is unlikely he will want to drop Coutinho or Sterling, if forced to choose, I would think he would drop Coutinho in favour of Sterling’s pace upfront. This dilemma is probably why Rodgers will stick with his usual 4-3-3 formation.
Importance of Subs
This game could finally see Liverpool call up some cavalry from the bench. Sturridge will probably get on midway through the second-half, and if more firepower is needed, Aspas will get another chance to build on his first goal. The physicality of Stoke at the Britannia will be too much for the likes of Luis Alberto, and Victor Moses’ poor showing against Oldham should mean he will not even be considered for one of the three substitutes should Sturridge be fit for the bench.
Rodgers will want to win this game, even though circumstances and history might be against his side. Personally, I don’t think he will begrudge a draw, but the likelihood of that is Liverpool will drop out of the top 4 again. They need to show their stickability, right now.