At long last, we're here. We can't shelve the transfer drama and rumor mongering just yet, but we're finally to the matches that count. Liverpool's preseason tour was a fantastic success, reaching across the globe and receiving unprecedented support, and now the club are tasked with carrying that momentum through a shaky display in Dublin last weekend and into the start of the Premier League season.
I've mentioned before that this feels like one of the more important league campaigns in recent memory, and until it's so far beyond recovery that I have to pretend it's not that important I'll maintain that stance. Already struggling to establish themselves as competitive in the transfer market due to a fading continental reputation, Liverpool need to show clear improvement in Brendan Rodgers' second term. Tomorrow won't determine their fate, but rightly or wrongly it'll go a long way into determining the sentiment we carry into Liverpool's season.
That the opener comes against Stoke City seems particularly cruel, as this tends to be one of the least watchable or enjoyable fixtures on the calendar. Tony Pulis' departure was my second favorite holiday this year, but it's not likely that Mark Hughes is going to usher in a complete tactical renaissance. They're going to change, no doubt, but the personnel available aren't necessarily going to be able to make an immediate shift from the hunter-gatherer tendencies that were so commonplace under Pulis. Also, it's Mark Hughes, so you know.
To this point their biggest summer signing has been Dutch defender Erik Pieters, who looks set to start in a defensive unit that includes sentimental favorites Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth. Marc Muniesa also joined from Barcelona and could feature tomorrow along with former Liverpool players Peter Crouch and Charlie Adam. There's a handful of other recognizable names available as well, with Asmir Begovic in goal, Steven Nzonzi and Wilson Palacios in the midfield, and Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Walters likely to feature at some point in attack. Brek Shea and Jamie Ness are the only players in the squad ruled out.
Johnson Toure Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas Allen
Aspas Sturridge Coutinho
All appears to be well on the injury front--Brendan Rodgers cleared both Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger in yesterday's press conference, and while Glen Johnson didn't feature in England's friendly against Scotland he was apparently fully fit. None of the internationals that played should have any problems; Steven Gerrard logged an hour on Wednesday and Joe Allen played 86 minutes for Wales against Ireland, while neither of Johnson nor Simon Mignolet played a part in their respective friendlies. Luis Suarez serves the fifth of his ten-match ban.
With all fit and ready, there's few--but not many--questions for Rodgers to answer, the first of which comes at the back. The answer seems fairly straightforward if preseason evidence proves reliable, as Kolo Toure should get the nod in central defense alongside Agger. Skrtel and Andre Wisdom should both make the bench, with the latter providing cover both in the middle and at the perilously thin fullback spots, where Johnson and Jose Enrique will likely start.
The midfield constellation is slightly less clear, though Lucas and Gerrard seem to be nailed-on starters. The Brazilian is fit and on his way back to top form, while Gerrard has looked mostly sharp over the summer aside from his disaffected display in Dublin. Who joins them depends on Rodgers' preference for two or three in the midfield; if it's two there's nothing more to say (other than prayers to Fowler those two will be enough), but if it's three the frontrunner looks to be an on-form Joe Allen, with Jordan Henderson left to come off the bench as an impact substitute.
What will be most interesting to see is Liverpool's attacking contingent--Philippe Coutinho is a given, and Iago Aspas seems a likely starter as well. If Daniel Sturridge is fit he'll start, which fills three of the front four. As noted above, that could well be that, with Aspas right, Sturridge central, and Coutinho left. If Rodgers opts for just two in the midfield, however, we'll see either Raheem Sterling or Jordon Ibe come in on the left and Coutinho shift into the number ten role. Both seem encouraging enough for the time being.
Kickoff is set for 12:45PM BST/7:45AM EST, with BT Sport airing the match live in the UK and NBCSN carrying coverage for the first time ever in the US. Those with the required cable subscriptions stateside can also watch online through NBC Sports Live Extra. We'll have television and online listings available in the matchday thread, which will run overnight leading up to kickoff, and team sheets will be posted there around an hour or so before the match gets underway.
Hope you'll be around to join us for the first of many.