As disappointing as Thursday's result was, there's still signs of progress from Liverpool, and getting back into the league campaign, there's going to need to be a continuation of that progress for the points to start coming. It's been up and down to this point, and the results in the last two--hitting Norwich for five, dominating before conceding three second-half goals to lose to Udinese--have continued that trend.
That there's still a healthy level of optimism and excitement despite their inconsistencies is encouraging, and I'd guess that regardless of the outcome tomorrow, we'll have reason to point towards signs of progress and Liverpool moving in a direction that appears to be positive. It's still early days for Brendan Rodgers, and while there'll always be a handful of folks that demand everything nownownow, the general sentiment seems to be that Rodgers' tenure to this point has been successful in a number of ways, even if the points haven't started adding up quite yet.
Tomorrow will be an excellent test for the new manager, who'll set his side up to play against one of the Premier League's most frustrating teams. Tony Pulis doesn't so much care if Stoke win games or draw them, only that they suffocate the play in the most annoying style possible. There's talent and ability in the squad that pops up from time to time, but they set out to batter the opposition physically and let the rest sort itself out. Results to this point are about what you'd expect--draws in four of their six matches, a narrow loss at Stamford Bridge, and, last weekend, a 2-0 win against struggling Swansea.
It's possible that Pulis could call on four former Liverpool players tomorrow, with Peter Crouch, Jermaine Pennant, Charlie Adam, and Michael Owen all available for selection. Crouch seems the easy pick, as he's started all six of their Premier League matches along with Jonathan Walters, and goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, midfielders Michael Kightly, and Glenn Whelan, and defenders Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross, and Marc Wilson have featured in every match as well. Adam's started three since arriving, and Owen has come off the bench twice after signing at the beginning of September.
Jonjo Shelvey will be serving the last of his three-match ban, and Martin Kelly and Lucas remain the only longer-term injuries. No word about Jose Enrique or Jon Flanagan, so we'll assume that Rodgers will have a full squad to pick from aside from the names mentioned.
We know that the recently re-signed Daniel Agger will pair with Martin Skrtel in central defense, but there's a lack of clarity about who'll feature where in the fullback roles. There's myriad options--Andre Wisdom could again start on the right with Glen Johnson on the left, which I'd prefer, but we could see Johnson right and one of Jose Enrique or Jack Robinson, who was impressive against Udinese, on the left. Wisdom and Johnson seem to be the safest bet, though, and the latter looked more uncomfortable when stationed right on Thursday.
Midfield's clearer, as Joe Allen, Nuri Sahin, and Steven Gerrard should all get starts. Henderson's early substitution midweek could indicate a larger role tomorrow, but that seems overly hopeful. Gerrard will again be the focus, as he's struggled more than either of Allen or Sahin to this point. We all know what he's capable of, and now it's mostly a matter of the player finding ways to show that on a regular basis under the new manager.
Nobody involved at the start on Thursday made a convincing case that they should be back in the strongest eleven; Oussama Assaidi was decent but less impressive than he was against West Brom, Fabio Borini showed good movement but couldn't get a goal, and Stewart Downing was strong early but Downinged badly in the second half. That leaves Luis Suarez to lead the line, again flanked by two of the club's more impressive teenagers in Raheem Sterling and Suso.
I hate when Liverpool play Stoke. It's typically an ugly, low-scoring match in which I spend most of the time cringing at the thought of an overly-physical tackle seriously injuring a Liverpool player. The goal of a match certainly isn't to make it as aesthetically pleasing as possible, but Stoke take their style to the extreme and care little about the consequences. A win with the injury list staying as it was before the match is the best possible outcome, and then we can all move on from what's sure to be one of the more frustrating opponents Liverpool's going to have this season.
Kickoff tomorrow is set for 3:00PM BST/10:00AM EST, and you'll be able to watch it live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus. There's no listing for UK viewers, but there'll be options available if you do a bit of searching. You know the drill from here--matchday thread will be up early tomorrow, with team sheets included about an hour or so ahead of the start time. We'll be over on Twitter and lurking in the comments section, so be sure to catch up with us in either place.
Hope you've all had a nice start to the weekend, and we'll see you around tomorrow.