With both Liverpool and Stoke City coming off defeats at the weekend, the urge to get back on track and get a leg up on the other in the first leg of the League Cup Semi-Finals will be greater than ever — not that either will need too much prodding to get excited for this one.
For Reds boss Jurgen Klopp, a trip to Wembley for the travelling Kop will be the perfect distraction from their stuttering league form with the Anfield outfit consistently inconsistent since the start of the campaign. On the flip side, Potters manager Mark Hughes will not only be looking to give his side a shot at winning their first major trophy since this won this very competition over 40-years ago, but it’ll give him the perfect stage to show that they’re no longer the rough and tumble Stoke of seasons past.
The 2-1 reversal at the hands of West Bromwich Albion comes on the back of two very good wins against the likes of Everton and Manchester United as well as a near miss against high flying Crystal Palace. It feels a bit weird to say, but based on form, they have to be the favourites going in to this one.
Hughes has been given a double boost in working out his team with a successful appeal against Geoff Cameron’s sending off against the Baggies that puts the American in contention to face Liverpool and the news that Reds hit-man Daniel Sturridge will not be making the trip to the Potteries after suffering a minor setback on his road to recovery.
“Yes, we feel there’s an opportunity if we play well,” said the Welshman when asked the chances of his side sealing a spot in the final. “We’ve come up against Man United, Man City and Chelsea and got positive results – there is a possibility we could take the tie away from Liverpool in the first instance.”
While they were able to eek out a result at the Britannia Stadium earlier in the season with a late strike from Philippe Coutinho sending them back to Merseyside with maximum points, the horror of the 6-1 reversal in the Potteries late last May still lives in the mind. Klopp may not have been in charge that afternoon, but the German hasn’t quite worked the kinks out of a defence that’s still quite fragile at times.
“They can change. If for example, Joselu plays in the centre [up front] then it’s a little bit more long ball, many legs defending sometimes but it’s pressing, counter-pressing, it’s everything,” said the Liverpool manager in his pre-match press conference, showing that he’s wary of Stoke’s ability to get a result. “They have a clear plan and [Xherdan] Shaqiri is a key player for the last pass on what they are doing. It’s good but we have to defend this. It’s not allowed for us to leave a player alone with him because one-on-one he is strong and has good solutions. He can cross with the right foot and shoot with the left foot.”
Containing the attacking trident of Bojan Krkic, Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic will be a job that will likely fall to the same back line that conceded a pair of headed goals against West Ham at the weekend with Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren expected to retain their places in the side. Controlling the midfield and creating chances for the front line has been an on-going problem and it’s likely one that will continue in the Potteries with club captain Jordan Henderson still sidelined with his nagging heel problem and James Milner struggling with a calf injury.
With that being said, whether Stoke are favourites or not, that tired cliché about a form book and a open window still applies. Things don’t just change overnight, but if Christian Benteke can get in the groove and Roberto Firmino can get his mojo working, there’s no reason we can head to the second leg in to the second leg at Anfield with a lead to build on. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million more times — this club is about winning trophies. Unexpected underdogs or not, we’ve defied the odds enough times to know we can do it again. There’s no good reason why that will change against the likes of Stoke…