Liverpool head to the Britannia tomorrow to face Tony Pulis' Stoke City in one of the more challenging away fixtures on the Premier League calendar. The Reds have only earned two points in their last three visits, and the hosts have a well-founded reputation for being one of the least hospitable clubs in the top flight. Away form has long been a question for Liverpool, and for the second time in their first four matches, they'll have a difficult test.
As with any international break, it's unfortunate that it came when it did---if there's obvious struggles, it gets in the way of healing the wounds and finding form, and in Liverpool's case after the win over Bolton, it gets in the way of continuing a good run of results and performances that were steadily improving. Two weeks off doesn't mean the good times have to stop, but it certainly made the wait for tomorrow seem that much longer.
Tomorrow's opponents likely have a somewhat similar view after starting the season on a run of seven matches unbeaten. Stoke have won all four of their Europa League contests (albeit against the standard early-round sides) and earned five points in Premier League play, drawing with Chelsea and Norwich before stealing an away victory at West Brom when a mix-up between Ben Foster and Gabriel Tamas allowed Ryan Shotton to roll the winner into an empty net in the 89th minute.
Pulis was able to bolster his side significantly during the summer, first adding a suddenly fit again Jonathan Woodgate in July, and then picking up Matthew Upson early in August before Cameron Jerome, Peter Crouch, and Wilson Palacios arrived on the last day of the transfer window. Upson's seen action twice in Europe and scored against Thun, while Woodgate's already asserted his place in the squad by featuring in each of the club's seven matches thus far. Crouch looks likely to find himself in the starting eleven immediately, with Palacios and Jerome hoping they're not far behind.
The new faces join a relatively settled, albeit one that might be missing a few regulars. Rory Delap and Marc Wilson have both incurred injuries in recent weeks, with the former only featuring twice thus far and the latter playing in all of the club's seven matches. There's still loads of experience available, though, with the aforementioned signings bolstering a lineup that typically features Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth in front of Asmir Begovic at the back, Jermaine Pennant, Glenn Whelan, and Matthew Etherington in midfield, and Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Walters up front.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Kuyt Suarez Downing
---Steven Gerrard's the only one ruled out for certain (interview at the offal with him regarding his fitness); Glen Johnson, Martin Kelly, and Charlie Adam are all close to full fitness and should work their way into the matchday squad if not the starting eleven. Token space for Fabio Aurelio, just for the sake of continuity.
---This is the same eleven guessed against Bolton, with only Johnson exchanged for Kelly. That switch has less to do with fitness (even though Kelly might be a doubt) and more to do with the belief that Johnson's still going to edge out Kelly at this point. It's going to be an interesting spot to watch throughout the season, though, as the presence of a more reliable left-back doesn't leave Johnson with many options other than to produce at right-back. Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger, triumphantly returning from a non-catastrophic international break, are able to join up again in the center, and Jose Enrique will hopefully resume normal service at left-back.
---With Charlie Adam's fitness concerns subsiding, it looks like he and Lucas will again be the preferred pairing in the middle, with a more advanced three of Dirk Kuyt, Luis Suarez, and Stewart Downing floating through the forward areas. Kuyt for Henderson makes a bit more sense here given Stoke's style of play; Henderson's not fragile by any stretch, and made two starts against the Potters last season, but with it increasingly looking like one or the other, I'm going with Kuyt's reliability and experience in a hostile environment. So look for Jordan Henderson to get the start.
---After drinking his way through most of the international break, Andy Carroll should be sober enough to get himself kitted up and on the pitch for a match that calls for a physical, sturdy center forward. His role up front will obviously be integral, but his work on set pieces at both ends of the pitch could be just as important.
---A quick note for Craig Bellamy and Sebastian Coates, both of whom were included in Kenny Dalglish's discussion about tomorrow's match. Both could find their way into the squad tomorrow, as Bellamy adds depth up front and Coates is a large body for a match that demands physicality. Not banking on either seeing significant minutes immediately, but I wouldn't be surprised if we saw one or both of them at some point.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
Pretty standard stuff, seems like---find consistency in an effective style of play regardless of the opponent or the setting. Stoke ask something slightly different; they play an uncompromising brand of football, and at times make it difficult for the opposition to impose a more fluid approach. Liverpool's got the personnel, and are seemingly leaving the days of hoofing behind, so the biggest issue will be facing an opponent who will try to force that style and resisting the temptation to revert to the ineffective tactics Liverpool's struggled to shake so often during the past year.
Things get a little dicier in terms of ways to watch tomorrow---we've had it pretty good over the past few weeks, but as of right now there's no listing for British viewers and Fox Soccer Plus, a premium channel for most, has the match stateside. There's sure to be streams available, though, so check back late tonight or early tomorrow morning for those listings, and feel free to share any ways to catch the match that we don't have posted. As always, team sheets will accompany the listings and will run when they're released, typically around an hour before kickoff.
Have a nice end to the week, and see you back here in the morning.