Liverpool FC face an absolute uphill struggle as they travel to the Britannia Stadium to take on a resurgent Stoke City in the cold of the British winter. Jurgen Klopp’s men’s confidence too would’ve ran cold following their drab and uninspiring performance against West Ham in the 2-0 defeat on Saturday.
The Reds failed to conjure up anything close to eye-catching at Upton Park as two delectable crosses followed by two precision headers proved to be their undoing in what resulted in them being pushed to 8th place with 30 points after 20 games being played.
But with the month of January throwing games in Liverpool’s path thick and fast, a daunting trip to West Midlands lies ahead with a berth in the final of the Capital One Cup at stake. A convincing to carry into the second leg would be the perfect boost to the ailing Merseysiders at this stage of their stop-start season. But a victory at arguably the most vocal venue in England is no given. To add to their resounding reputation at home, Stoke this year with Mark Hughes have managed to put together a set of vibrant individuals who seem to be functioning more than able as a team.
What will Liverpool have to do so as to stop this Potters’ juggernaut?
To start with, coping with the dual threat of Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri will be of essence. Their danger coupled with Stoke’s efficiency on the wings will be a source of concern for Klopp. To add to all of this, their ability to play down the middle with the cut and thrust of Bojan is also an aspect that cannot be neglected. It is quite astonishing that 14 of Stoke’s 21 goals scored this season have been courtesy the aforementioned front three – that is exactly two-thirds of their strikes this campaign in all competitions.
It is quite simple if one looks at it with an idealistic perspective – if Liverpool defend and attack in numbers, they will nullify the threat Stoke pose. But that will be made doubly difficult with the likes of Bojan and Arnautovic running down the channels and stretching play. Liverpool will have to find a better alternative than Lucas Leiva or Joe Allen to break that kind of play down and stop the ball from running down those channels. Double-marking Arnautovic too could be a tactic that Klopp might seriously have to consider.
Lack of timely closing down and inadequate cover at the back post were the decisive errors Liverpool committed against West Ham in the weekend. Liverpool need to work the ‘gegenpress’ in a more structured manner rather than hunting in packs and leaving the opposing flank vulnerable. That would play to Stoke’s strengths considerably as their wing-backs in Erik Pieters and Glen Johnson love to bomb forward and overlap.
All of Liverpool’s players including their strikers (Benteke would be a doubt to start surely!) need to track back and defend as a team if they are to down the Potters on their own turf. The tireless Emre Can will be hugely significant in what could come down to a ruthless physical battle with his decision-making in dire need of improvement. The likes of Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana need to show more muscle and bite if they are to stand any chance of carrying an advantage into the second leg.
That could prove to be a completely different ball-game with Stoke looking to come to Anfield and sit back; but the first leg at the Britannia Stadium could actually prove to be an opportunity for Liverpool if they wish to perceive it as one. A lot will be won and lost owing to the mentality Liverpool play with. The cup clash promises to be a raspy, feisty affair to say the least with an attacking display on the cards from both sides…