There’s probably not another team in the Premier League who provoke as much debate as Stoke City, and whilst much of that is somewhat unfairly based on the bruising reputation of Tony Pulis’s side, you can rest assured that there will be some Liverpool fans hoping that Brendan Rodgers fills his team with as many tall players as he can find for the Boxing Day visit to the Land of the Giants at the Britannia Stadium.
They’ll be asking for a rare appearance for Sebastian Coates, the return of the uncompromising Sotirios Kyrgiakos and perhaps even an attempt to take Peter Crouch back from the opposition. Those with longer memories might even be longing for the return of the 1960s defensive colossus Ron Yeats―a player so big that Bill Shankly once invited journalists to take a tour around him―as the pressure falls on Rodgers to pack his team with players who can combat Stoke’s style.
As a manager determined to stick to his principles, it’s unlikely that Rodgers will be thinking the same way, though, but the Reds boss still has a few major selection dilemmas as he heads to a ground on which Stoke are still unbeaten in the league this season and have only conceded three goals—far and away the best home record in the division.
However, only Queens Park Rangers have scored less than Stoke in their home surroundings during the campaign, and so Rodgers will be planning for a tight, tough contest in the Potteries which could well be settled by just one goal. We know that he’ll start with Pepe Reina between the sticks, but what about the rest of his team?
With Coates, Andre Wisdom and Jamie Carragher around, Rodgers does have the capability to start with three centre-backs at the Britannia, but he’s likely to stick with the pairing of Martin Škrtel and Daniel Agger after both impressively bounced back from their disjointed displays at home to Aston Villa with solid performances in the win over Fulham, in which Škrtel scored and Agger should have done.
Glen Johnson is one of the first names on the teamsheet and will again be looked to as an attacking force from right-back, with Jose Enrique’s fine form ensuring that he’ll be treated the same on the left-hand side.
The Spaniard has had a momentous few days following the birth of his first son and a fine display in the win over Fulham, and his extra width could prove vital as the Reds look to find a way around the solid home side.
Playing their usual flat back four means that Liverpool won’t have to alter their midfield approach too much, but the personnel is likely to change in an area of the pitch in which Rodgers will feel that they can dominate.
Lucas Leiva is sure to start in his usual deep-lying midfield role after coming through the Fulham match on another evening which did wonders for his match fitness, and the team will look to him to dictate play as Liverpool seek to dominate possession and limit Stoke’s chances to get the ball into their penalty area.
Joe Allen was rested against Fulham and is likely to return in another bid to keep hold of that ball, with Steven Gerrard almost certain to play as the most advanced of the Reds’ three central midfielders and to be given the task of breaking into the box to support the attack.
Stewart Downing turned in arguably his best display in a Liverpool shirt against Fulham, and the winger will be looking to build upon his goal and assist against Stoke, a team he scored the winner against in an FA Cup quarterfinal tie last season.
Luis Suarez—the scorer of three goals in the cup competitions against Stoke last season –is of course certain to lead the Reds’ line, with a return from Raheem Sterling also on the cards after Saturday saw him fail to start a league game for the first time since the opening day of the season. Suso can drop to the bench, but could provide creativity late on.
The Ideal Liverpool XI:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique