Two teams with three games remaining go head to head in this weekend’s first Premier League fixture and both the teams can aspire to be third – one from the top and the other from the bottom. Liverpool host Stoke City on Saturday afternoon, in a fixture that is equally important for both the teams though the Reds’ fans might feel differently.
After that amazing Champions League semi-final first leg against AS Roma, Liverpool fans can be forgiven if they are still in a hungover state. But Jurgen Klopp and his team cannot afford any such luxury. They need at least 5 points in their last three games to secure Champions League football for the next season. One of those three games is against the team that is 5th – Chelsea and it follows immediately after what is likely to be an exhausting trip to Rome next week. So, the Reds’ best bet is to gather the maximum number of points from their other two games – Stoke City and Brighton. In terms of form, Liverpool have been exceptional upfront. However, their old frailties at the back seem to be creeping back as they have conceded two goals each in the last 30 minutes of their last two games. Klopp will also have to rotate his side to keep personnel fresh for the return leg of the semi-final in Rome.
Stoke City do not have any such exhausting schedules at present. But they must be dismayed by their position in the table. The Potters sit 19th in the table with 3 games to play. Even if they manage to bag all nine points on offer, their continuity in Premier League will depend on the results of other teams, some of whom have four games left to play. But managing those nine points is going to be difficult, as Stoke have got nine points from their last 12 games. So, to pull off their Houdini act Stoke City are going to need a lot of luck and a lot of verve, both of which seem to have deserted them this season.
- Liverpool have never lost in 54 top-flight home games against Stoke (W43, D11). It’s the longest unbeaten home record between two teams in top-flight history. The Potters did, however, win a League Cup semi-final second leg fixture 1-0 at Anfield in January 2016.
- Liverpool have won eight of their last nine matches against Stoke, the exception being the Potters’ 6-1 home win on the final day of the 2014-15 season. They have also lost just one of their last 11 Premier League games (W7, D3). At home, they have been undefeated in 19 league games (W12, D7).
- In contrast, Stoke are winless in 11 league fixtures since beating Huddersfield 2-0 at home in Paul Lambert’s first game in charge (D6, L5). They have the division’s worst away record, with one win and nine points from 17 matches.
- But some consolation for Stoke in the following two stats – Liverpool have won only three of their last 10 league games after a Champions League fixture (W3, D5, L2); Lambert has never lost an away match at Anfield as a manager, winning three and drawing two of his five matches in all competitions.
One of the best sights of last weekend’s draw versus West Brom was to see Danny Ings celebrate a Liverpool goal. Over the last two years, it has felt like the Reds’ fans will never get to see that sight again. But Ings has regained match fitness at a crucial time when his manager will need options up front. Just like last weekend, he will expect to start here and hope to get on the goal sheet as well. There are not many stats for him – four appearances including two starts have led to one goal in the league. But Klopp will look to him to give Liverpool an attacking edge on Saturday. To be fair to him, his xG per 90 minutes is 0.69, which is only second to Salah in the entire Liverpool squad.
Even against a second-choice Liverpool attack, one can presume that the most important aspect of Stoke City’s game will be their defense. They will have to keep the goals out to ensure they have some chance of getting three points. The key man in that aspect is the skipper Ryan Shawcross. Shawcross has some pretty good defensive stats – 7.8 clearances per game, 0.8 blocks per game, and 1.2 interceptions per game with an overall WhoScored rating of 7.11 reflect a very good defender. He also wins more than 60% of his aerial duels and will be a threat from set pieces for Liverpool.
For Liverpool, the existing list of injured players got added to as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up a season and World Cup ending injury on Tuesday night. Nathaniel Clyne could get his second start if Klopp chooses to give him a chance over Joe Gomez, although Gomez could also get a nod over Klavan in the central defence. Upfront, Danny Ings and Solanke could partner either of the usual front three. On Thursday evening, rumours were floating about Sadio Mane being injured but it is likely that the Senegalese might just be rested for the weekend. Alberto Moreno will come in to rest Robertson. However, the real problem is in the midfield as Milner, Henderson, and Wijnaldum are the only three senior midfielders, meaning some of the youngsters could get a chance.
For Stoke, Choupo-Moting, Lee Grant and possibly Stafylidis could all be missing as would be Ibrahim Afellay. Kurt Zouma will hope to start at Anfield. Glen Johnson is still a doubt, and both Saido Berahino and Jese are once again not under consideration.
Liverpool will have many tired legs but they should have enough in the tank to almost end Stoke’s hopes of staying up. While Stoke City will make it hard for the Reds, in the end they should come out victorious.