Stoke City FC
Saturday, August 17th, 2013; 11:45 Hrs GMT
The first game of the season is the one when all fans, whether they support table-toppers or relegation battlers, swarm to stadiums and TV screens to cheer on their team. The fans of both Liverpool FC and Stoke City FC will have their own reasons for eagerly awaiting the kick-off their first match of 2013-14 season.
It’s a very unique time of the year, when teams have no real form to go on, new faces are lining up for the first time, and with the transfer window still open there is still a good chance that the line-up will see a change or two based on the club’s wheelings-and-dealings. Mark Hughes, the new manager at Stoke City, has yet to bring in the new faces to augment his attacking line-up that he would have liked. Likewise, Liverpool FC are still waist deep in the muck of sorting out who will be leading their line in the coming season; Suarez’s future with the club is an enigma, and Rodgers still has his eye on bringing in atleast one more attack minded midfielder (Anzhi Makhachkala’s Willian is the latest player to be linked with a move)
Team News and Tactics
Brendan Rodgers has accomplished what seemed like an impossible task at the start of the transfer window: come the first match of the
new season, and Luis Suarez is still a Liverpool player. There have been comments and sound-bites galore emerging from the Anfield club: on Suarez, on Arsenal, on the new signings and the future of the club. Fans will be dying to be done with all the posing & posturing and move on to actual football. In pre-season, Rodgers’ preferred formation (his 4-2-3-1 from last season) and defensive line-up has been fairly consistent: Simon Mignolet takes the ‘keeping duties, Glen Johnson & Jose Enrique serve as full-backs with license to run forward and join the attack, while Kolo Toure (who seems to have nabbed the position from Martin Skrtel) and Daniel Agger stand firm in the center. Lucas Leiva has not looked very solid, and may lose his place in central midfield, where a Steven Gerrard-Joe Allen- Jordan Henderson triad is most likely. Stewart Downing is on his way to join Joe Cole and Andy Carroll at West Ham United, while Raheem Sterling’s availability is unclear after he was charged with assault on his girlfriend last week. This means that Philippe Coutinho would be forced to play to the left, while Iago Aspas will take up the right. Luis Suarez will continue his 10 match ban for biting Chelsea’s Bransilav Ivanovic, this match effectively being day 5. This makes Daniel Sturridge the most likely candidate for the central striker role. Fabio Borini is another option, but he has not done enough in pre-season (nor last season) to be given the responsibility. It will be interesting to see how the front 3 work together; the Coutinho-Sturridge-Aspas team up could be completely devastating or highly dysfunctional, depending on how well they sync-up. With Coutinho pushed wide, Henderson will need to ensure that he contributes enough to make for the lack of creativity in the behind-the-striker role.
Probable Starting Lineup (4-2-3-1): Mignolet (GK); Johnson, K. Toure, Agger, Enrique; Gerrard, Allen; Aspas, Henderson, Coutinho; Sturridge
Stoke City FC
A Stoke City side without Rory Delap’s long throws or Dean Whitehead’s constant fouling is difficult to imagine, but that is exactly what fans are in for. After 7 years in-charge, Tony Pulis was asked to move on and Mark Hughes was given the task of taking Stoke City to its next level. Despite certain perceptions that may have formed in recent years, make no mistake that both these men are highly competent managers. Well, highly competent at managing a certain type of team. Pulis was exceptional in the way he brought Stoke City up from the Championship and ensured that they weren’t relegated under his watch. He’s a victim of his own success: the first half of the season went so well (they looked set for a top half of the table finish), that a seven-match winless streak around March was deemed unacceptable. Mark Hughes has had a roller-coaster of a career, with solid displays with Blackburn Rovers (2004-08, including a 6th and a 7th place finish) and Fulham (2010-11, 8th place finish), and relatively poor showings at cash-rich Manchester City (2008-2009) and Queens Park Rangers (2012). Perhaps having large amounts of money at his disposal throws him off his game; in which case he should be pretty comfortable at Stoke City.
Hughes has stated that he is looking to instill a more attacking style in the team; which isn’t to say that he’s bringing in tiki-taka football, simply that he wants to move away from the long-ball rugby-style football that Stoke has been known for in recent years. Right away he has gotten rid of Pulis regulars Delap and Whitehead. He has strengthened defence by adding Barcelona academy product Marc Muniesa (center-half) and PSV Eindhoven left full-back Erik Pieters. Retaining Asmir Begovic seemed unlikely at the start of the transfer window, but he’s still around, and this is will bring as much joy as a new signing to Stoke fans. Hughes also seems more than satisfied with Robert Huth and captain Ryan Shawcross, using them regularly in all friendlies. In midfield and attack however, Stoke are still Tony Pulis’ team. The lack of creativity will trouble Hughes, who has had his eye on the likes of Scott Sinclair, Mame Diouf and Jermain Defoe in the hopes of adding more goal-scoring options. Hughes seems to favour 4-3-3 (which can switch to a 4-5-1) in his Stoke side, atleast that’s what the pre-season has shown. Against Liverpool, knowing their tendency to play a relatively narrow shape and to stifle the Gerrard-Allen-Coutinho/Henderson team up, he would ideally want that atleast 2 of the central 3 would be players who can track back and defend. Unfortunately, other than Steven N’Zonzi, he only has Wilson Palacios for that role, a player who is fairly inconsistent and error-prone. With Charlie Adam and N’Zonzi’s selection almost assured, Hughes will have to carefully choose between Palacios and the somewhat less defensive (but much more reliable and consistent) Glenn Whelan. With Peter Crouch in the side, Route-one football is still part and parcel of the team, although now with a somewhat greater intent to pass and play as well. Kenwyne Jones, Jermaine Pennant and Michael Kightly will provide a range of options to come off the bench if players tire, though none of them are what you would call a ‘super-sub’. Missing In Action: Brek Shea is out with knee injured and Cameron Jerome may be suspended after confessing to have breached the FA’s betting regulations.
Probable Starting Lineup (4-3-3): Begovic (GK); Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Pieters; N’Zonzi, Whelan, Adam; Etherington, Crouch, Walters
Player To Watch Out
Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool)
The Brazilian has been a revelation for Liverpool since joining last January. He has very nimble on his feet and has a keen eye for a defence splitting pass. While his best position is as a Central Attacking Midfielder or a No. 10, he may have to play to the left due to the absence of any good enough alternatives. This is not a position he is completely uncomfortable with though. It is also possible that he will be marked by Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron, a utility player who is not the most reliable of defenders – Coutinho could give the right-back hell with his trickery.
Liverpool FC 1-0 Stoke City
Mark Hughes is yet to bring in the attacking personnel he would like, but has done relatively well to improve upon the defence. Both teams will have a tough time breaking down the other’s defences, especially with two of last season’s highest rated goalkeepers on either end of the pitch. But Liverpool’s attack has enough creativity and drive to get a goal past the Stoke defence; with their incessant passing style, they should be able to force a mistake out of error-prone players like Adam and Cameron.