Liverpool hope to close the gap on second-place Manchester United this weekend, but their European duties means they must manage priorities when they host relegation-threatened Stoke City.
Dilemmas for Klopp
Had Liverpool seen out Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg with a five goal lead over AS Roma, they could put all their energies into this clash. Instead, the soft concession of two late goals puts the score at 5-2, meaning that Wednesday’s trip to Italy for the second leg takes precedence.
Jurgen Klopp’s side won’t be helped by the injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has recently excelled in a central role and is out with a long-term injury.
James Milner and Jordan Henderson might not want to play three 90-minute games in little over a week and with alternative central options limited, Klopp has hinted at switching to a 3-4-3 so that he only has to pick two midfielders rather than three.
Georginio Wijnaldum is likely to be one of them and with Emre Can and Adam Lallana injured, academy graduates Curtis Jones and Herbie Kane have an outside chance of making their first professional appearance.
Nathaniel Clyne could start over the in-form Trent Alexander-Arnold to get back to full fitness, having been out of competitive action for 10 months prior to April. Similarly, Andrew Robertson’s lung-busting qualities might be saved for Rome, making Alberto Moreno likely to play.
At least two of Danny Ings, Dominic Solanke and Ben Woodburn could start; although able, neither are unlikely to strike fear to quite the same extent that Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah would.
Klopp will have to be creative with his team selection, whilst keeping enough quality on the pitch to secure victory.
The Shaqiri conundrum
Given that Xherdan Shaqiri has seven goals and six assists to his name this season, nobody could deny that he is Stoke City’s most technically gifted player. And yet, what he offers the Potters in possession perhaps masks what he doesn’t offer them without the ball.
The problem is not that Shaqiri doesn’t work hard at all – he will close down an opposing player if asked to – but with an apprehension that puts him at a disadvantage. Other withdrawn forwards, by contrast, would charge down defenders with the necessary vigour to either win the ball or significantly disrupt the rhythm of the opposing team. Shaqiri’s reluctance to do this means that Stoke find it harder to press effectively, which is a key requirement of a team battling relegation; especially for a trip to Anfield.
Whenever Shaqiri is at his best, his teammates play quality passes into his feet and then flood the final third with bold forward runs. Stoke are only able to do that for short bursts within games, because Paul Lambert’s demand for defensive focus means most players spend a lot of the time in their own half.
A case in point is Moritz Bauer: whether he plays on the right or left side of midfield, the utility man will spend a lot of time tracking back the opposition full-back so that Kurt Zouma or Erik Pieters, neither of whom are the quickest full-backs around, are not isolated two-on-one.
Winger Ramadan Sobhi has pace but perhaps not the technical accuracy to justify the early hype that surrounded him, while advanced forward Mame Biram Diouf must be more ruthless in front of goal than he was in Sunday’s 1-1 home draw with Burnley.
In another 1-1, which came at West Ham six days earlier, Joe Allen tended to run back into Stoke’s penalty area if a teammate gave the ball away and we can expect to see more of that at Anfield, to ensure that the centre-backs – especially Ryan Shawcross – are never asked to defend wide, open spaces.
That danger is partly why midfielder Badou N’Diaye, who has proved effective at breaking up play with his strong challenges, very rarely breaks into the final third.
The above would suggest that Stoke cannot give Shaqiri the support he needs in the 10 role. With Peter Crouch unlikely to become anything more than a super-sub, Lambert might be tempted to partner Diouf with Tyrese Campbell. The latter’s mobility would help Stoke both press with intensity and pose a threat in the transitional phases; otherwise, they risk giving Shaqiri a job that he simply does not have the appropriate skillset to do.
We’re backing the 1-0 home win, which is 15/2 with Betway as of 25th April. While fiscipline won’t be a problem for Stoke, a second string Liverpool side will have quality in reserve.