Liverpool make the hour-long trip down the M6 to take on Stoke City on Tuesday evening in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final at the Britannia Stadium.
Managers Jurgen Klopp and Mark Hughes will both be desperate to secure a positive result on their way to silverware in 2015/16.
It is the second time the two sides have met so far this season, although this encounter is perhaps the most important, with a win for either the Potters or the Reds providing a solid platform for progress to a February 28 final at Wembley Stadium.
Hughes' Stoke have been one of the surprise packages of the season so far in the Premier League, with the combined talents of Bojan Krkic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic forming a formidable attacking line.
This marks a remarkable change in emphasis for a club previously renowned for their direct, physical style of play under former manager Tony Pulis.
With both sides undergoing a sea change in recent seasons, this semi-final gives Stoke and Liverpool the opportunity to make another step towards success—but who will win out on Tuesday night?
Date: Tuesday, 5 January, 2015
Time: 8 p.m. GMT / 3 p.m. ET
Venue: Britannia Stadium, Stoke, England
TV Info: Sky Sports 1 (UK) / beIN SPORTS (U.S only)
Form Lines (Last 5 Games)
Stoke City: D-L-W-W-L
Hughes heads into Tuesday's clash buoyed by the news that Geoff Cameron's red card in Saturday's 2-1 defeat to West Bromwich Albion had been overturned.
The versatile American defender was sent off by referee Anthony Taylor following a push on Baggies midfielder Claudio Yacob, with Hughes telling BBC Sport after the game: "I think he went down really easily with the intention of maybe getting Geoff sent off, which he succeeded in doing."
Hughes launched an appeal to rescind the 30-year-old's three-game ban, and the Football Association subsequently withdrew their ruling. This leaves Shay Given as his only absentee.
Nevertheless, speaking to reporters on Monday, as relayed by the club's official website, Hughes said Saturday's disappointing defeat at the Hawthorns could affect his team selection:
There's always a temptation to change things. I could have made changes against West Brom, but there's no danger of our mentality changing.
We have a clean bill of health for the game, and everybody with the exception of Shay Given, is available for the game.
Chelsea loanee Marco van Ginkel and former Liverpool midfielder Charlie Adam are in Hughes' thinking as potential replacements for Cameron, and could still hope to feature, while both Jonathan Walters and Joselu are in line for starting roles.
Facing a considerably more restricting injury list, Klopp will be without a number of first-team stars for this must-win semi-final.
Divock Origi, Danny Ings, Jordan Rossiter, Martin Skrtel, James Milner, Jon Flanagan and Joe Gomez are all unavailable due to injury, and the manager also ruled out both Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge, per the club's official website.
On Henderson, Klopp explained: "He's having treatment and, everything we can do to bring the blood out of the foot, we are doing. But we cannot rush more, it's time we need."
Meanwhile, Sturridge's intensive training continues at Melwood, with Klopp not willing to risk the England striker before he is fully fit:
It's a pre-season without games so it should not happen too much but some little things happened, we always have to handle this.
It's not a row of sessions and now we are here. I'm the first who will pick him when he's available, when he's ready for this, I will never hold him back.
In this moment because he didn't have one session with the team, which was the usual plan for this week, he's not available.
One player who is available, however, is 19-year-old academy winger Ryan Kent, who has returned to the club following a successful loan spell with League One side Coventry City.
As Hughes referenced the "temptation to change things" before the game, the Welshman could make a number of alterations to the side that lost to West Brom at the weekend.
With Given still absent, Jack Butland is likely to continue in goal, while Glen Johnson, Ryan Shawcross, Philipp Wollscheid and Erik Pieters should keep their places in defence.
Ahead of regular defensive midfielder Glenn Whelan, Cameron can continue his role alongside former Barcelona man Ibrahim Afellay, with this midfield trio supporting three of Bojan, Arnautovic, Walters, Shaqiri, Joselu and Peter Crouch.
With this tie representing Stoke's best opportunity of sealing a spot in the final, Hughes could continue with the well-tuned forward line of Arnautovic, Bojan and Shaqiri.
As Liverpool travel to take on Exeter City in the FA Cup on Friday night, Klopp could look to make a few changes to his starting lineup at the Britannia, with his first team showing signs of fatigue in Saturday's 2-0 defeat to West Ham United.
Adam Bogdan is likely to continue his stint as Liverpool's League Cup goalkeeper, while Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho are set to take up their regular positions in defence.
Klopp's back four could see one change, however, with the impressive Brad Smith able to come in for Alberto Moreno, offering the Spaniard a much-needed rest.
In midfield, injuries to Henderson, Milner and Rossiter gives Klopp little option but to continue with Lucas Leiva and Emre Can, while he could toy with the possibility of reverting to a 4-3-3 formation, fielding Joe Allen alongside them.
If he perseveres with the 4-2-3-1, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana are likely to take up supporting roles behind Christian Benteke.
Both Kent and Jordon Ibe will be hopeful of an appearance, as will Portuguese midfielder Joao Carlos Teixeira and academy stars Cameron Brannagan and Pedro Chirivella—though game time against Exeter is more likely.
Likely Stoke City XI: Butland; Johnson, Shawcross, Wollscheid, Pieters; Cameron, Whelan, Afellay; Shaqiri, Bojan, Arnautovic.
Likely Liverpool XI: Bogdan; Clyne, Lovren, Sakho, Smith; Can, Lucas; Lallana, Firmino, Coutinho; Benteke.
Players to Watch
A former Liverpool target, Shaqiri made the surprise move to Stoke in August, with the Potters sanctioning a club-record fee of £12 million for the Swiss winger.
Having turned out for FC Basel, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan in his career to date, Shaqiri was seen as something of a coup signing for Stoke, despite his ailing reputation in Europe—the 23-year-old spent just seven months with Inter, making 15 Serie A appearances.
A pacy, skilful winger, Shaqiri boasts the potential to be one of the most devastating attacking talents in Europe, and looks set to continue his development at the Britannia.
So far this season, Shaqiri has scored two goals and made three assists in 16 Premier League appearances for Hughes' side, including a spectacular volley in December's 4-3 win away to Everton.
Shaqiri could provide Stoke with the inspiration to defeat the Reds on Tuesday night.
Liverpool's decision to award 22-year-old Smith with a new contract in November was considered a questionable one by many supporters, with the Australian having failed to establish himself in the first team after making his debut under Brendan Rodgers in 2013.
But, clearly having impressed Klopp with his efforts at the club's Melwood training complex, Smith has been rewarded with a role in the German's first team after extending his terms.
So far, Smith has made three appearances for the Reds in 2015/16, including a positive performance in October's 0-0 draw away to FC Sion in the Europa League.
Strong, fleet-footed and boasting an exceptional delivery from the left flank, Smith will be looking to impress if he is given a starting role at the Britannia.
Bojan vs. Lucas Leiva
Like Shaqiri, Bojan was something of a surprise signing for Hughes' side, with the Spaniard making the £3 million move from Barcelona in 2013, after two years at Roma and a loan spell with Ajax.
Once considered one of the most promising young talents in world football, Bojan's peripheral role at Barcelona saw his development stall, but he has since shown his talents with a string of exceptional performances in the Premier League under Hughes.
Typically operating in a floating role as Stoke's No. 9, Bojan will be one of Klopp's main targets in preparation for Tuesday's clash, and the onus could fall on Lucas to combat his threat.
Lucas is a fleetingly effective defensive option most at home in a three-man midfield, and after struggling alongside Can at West Ham United on Saturday, he will be keen to impress in the League Cup.
Stoke City: 36/17
Odds via Oddschecker and correct at time of writing.
Statistics via Transfermarkt.co.uk.
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