The recent history of this fixture gets fans of either side in a twist before kickoff. The Britannia stadium is host to a team in peculiar form at the moment. Stoke have looked a revitalized side in several big-game matches: 4-3 at Everton, and 2-0 against both Manchester United and Manchester City in the month of December. But, in the very same month, the Potters have lost to West Brom and Crystal Palace while playing West Ham to a draw.
No less controversial are the Merseyside Reds, whose December looked simple while being anything but. Liverpool took points from Sunderland, Leicester, and West Brom but dropped all against West Ham, Watford, and Newcastle United in an accumulated 7-0 score line. Neither side here has had the rosiest of holidays, but a new year is, indeed, a new year. The first leg of the League Cup semi-final is a chances for both sides to pick themselves back up after shocking league defeats on the second day of 2016.
Liverpool are far worse off on the injury list. A perpetual figure is, of course, Daniel Sturridge, who’s joined by season-long sitters Danny Ings and Joe Gomez. Recently added to the side’s “out” column are Martin Skrtel (who could probably use a spell out of the side), skipper Jordan Henderson, and Divock Origi. Three of these five names are centre-forwards for a squad who are struggling to find goals at the moment – so for this match, the pressure falls on the broad shoulders of Christian Benteke.
Midfielders James Milner and Jordan Rossiter will remain sidelined as well.
Stoke aren’t looking at missing much come Tuesday. Shay Given has been out of the team due to injury for a while now, but young Jack Butland won’t be losing his position anytime soon. Stephen Ireland and Marc Muniesa are also unavailable for selection until the end of the week, but other players in the attacking midfield and at left back have impressed Mark Hughes in their stead. With the addition of Glen Johnson from Liverpool over the summer, Erik Pieters has moved to left-back in Muniesa’s absence. With a midfield three of Arnautovic, Bojan Krkic, and Xherdan Shaqiri, Ireland had little chance of seeing the pitch anyway.
While there are no tangible implications on the Premier League table as a result of this draw, both sides could use a win here. Stoke’s impressive performances against top sides will surely play a part in their approach to this match, especially at home. Liverpool, under new manager Jurgan Klopp, are simply looking for something to believe in. Some silverware would be rather helpful to the German gaffer, even if it is simply from domestic competition.
Though Stoke City spent plenty of time out of the First Division/Premier League, Liverpool have only recorded one league win away from home against Stoke in 27 years. The Reds have only beaten Stoke three times in the Premier League era. While everyone remembers the shambolic performance by Liverpool at the end of last season, they’ve actually recorded a bigger win against the Potters in the past – 8-0 in the League Cup back in 2000.
That’s not to say that Stoke City haven’t bruised the Reds prior to last season, however. Liverpool have suffered a couple of heavy away defeats against Stoke over the years: 6-1 in 1897; 5-2 in 1903; and 6-1 three months ago.
Here’s a bit of a fun fact: Stoke mounted a serious title challenge in 1946/47, just after the Second World War. In the final game of that season, they needed to beat Sheffield United to win the league. Alas, the game was lost 2-1, which meant the title went to…Liverpool. It would be another 17 years, though, before Liverpool won the league again (Bill Shankly’s first league triumph in 1963/64).
Stoke City: Marko Arnautovic
The Austrian forward’s form has been back-and-forth at times during his tenure at Stoke City, but recent performances may be the beginning of some positive consistency. Arnautovic has linked well as of late with Shaqiri and Bojan, so much so that a position change from Mark Hughes has come as a result. While Bojan is typically an attacking midfielder and Arnautovic fights for playing time with Ibrahim Afellay on the left, the gaffer has moved Krkic into a false nine forward role and slotted the pacy Afellay in behind him. The creativity of those two alone is enough to cause concern for opposition, but having quick wingers in Arnautovic and Shaqiri on either side practically guarantees quick transition football and aggressive ball movement into the box. Arnautovic has scored four goals and assisted Shaqiri once since Manchester City at the beginning of December. He’s been integral going forward for Stoke, especially in the counterattack. With a shaky Reds back line, he’s sure to find some success at the Britannia on Tuesday.
Liverpool: Simon Mignolet
Oh, Simon. Though the Belgian unofficially received the honour of keeping the most clean sheets in 2015, there’s no mistake to be made that the goalkeeper has his ups and downs. Against Stoke City, a team that can score from several areas on the pitch, he’ll need to channel his top form. With Christian Benteke up front, Mignolet will at least have a target when kicking from his area, but the Belgian was shut down by James Collins against West Ham. Between Ryan Shawcross and Phillipp Wollscheid, Stoke’s bruising centre-backs, that target may disappear for Mignolet. He’ll need to be wary when coming out of goal to claim a cross or corner as well – Stoke’s height at most positions will create some difficulties for a smaller Liverpool team. Mignolet’s form has arguably been regressing over the course of a busy December period. With the transfer window open, he’ll have to get back to his best form.
Stoke should see this first leg through, a prediction that will surely cause an outcry from Liverpool fans. The Britannia is one of the toughest places to play in the Premier League, and the Reds have looked a bit passionless in their most recent matches. Arnautovic to shine again while Liverpool will struggle to create chances and hope the return leg bodes better for them.
Prediction: Stoke City 2-1 Liverpool