Stoke City-Liverpool Preview
Between the firing of Brendan Rodgers and season-long injury woes, things have not gone Liverpool's way often this season. Yet the chance to salvage something special remains as the Reds host Stoke City at Anfield on Sunday.
The Fenway Sports Group opened the pursestrings this past offseason to bring in high-priced talent in Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino, hoping Rodgers would steer Liverpool (12-9-9) back into Champions League play after a taste of group play in 2014. That never materialised, though, as the Reds were unable to get out of their own way in a slow start that resulted in Rodgers' firing after a scoreless draw in the Merseyside derby versus Everton on Oct. 4.
But hope returned to Anfield in the person of Jurgen Klopp. The former two-time Bundesliga champion manager of Borussia Dortmund brought his famous high-pressing style to one of English football's most iconic clubs, and while his style has yet to fully take root, there are signs of promise.
Though they are ninth in the table on 45 points, Liverpool gave themselves a chance to reach the Europa League semifinals - a trophy that comes with a spot in the Champions League - after playing Klopp's former team to a 1-1 draw Thursday at Signal Iduna Park in the first leg of what has been dubbed "the Klopp-ico."
Belgian striker Divock Origi, preferred in the starting 11 over Daniel Sturridge given the style of play both teams utilise, opened the scoring with a first-half strike and nearly had a second before the interval. Dortmund equalised shortly after the break through Mats Hummels, but the Reds will take the all-important away goal advantage back to England for the second leg next week.
"I'm satisfied with lots of parts of the game. Our organisation was good and we were brave with our plan. And around the 1-0 we were brilliant, to be honest, really good moments. We played direct football and showed what we are capable of," Klopp said. "Then, of course, against a team like Dortmund with their quality, organisation and self-confidence, you cannot defend each pass. So you need to be patient in the midfield, you need to be ready to get frustrated when you can't avoid the pass. We had to fight with big passion and that's what we did.
"It was an unusual situation with everything around the game. There were more outside circumstances than perhaps we're used to," the manager added. "Going onto the pitch, there was polite applause that I took and I made a small gesture in return. Overall, coming back was good. This stadium is a great venue and a great place to play football. The people here are very special as well. ... We're going to travel home back to Liverpool looking forward to next Thursday's return game at Anfield."
Stoke City (13-8-11) are aiming to continue their push for a Europa League place as they enter the match in eighth place on 47 points, six behind sixth-place Manchester United with six matches remaining.
Last week's 2-2 draw with Swansea saw the Potters defence ship two late goals to drop two points, and they'll have to shore up the defense against a talented, if tired, Liverpool side away from home.
With the exception of a 6-1 drubbing by the Potters at The Brittania to end last season - in retrospect, a harbinger of things to come for Rodgers - Stoke have had significant trouble with Liverpool. The Potters have been shut out in five of their last eight league meetings with Liverpool and also lost to the Reds on penalties in the League Cup semifinals in January. They've scored at least three goals in each of the other three contests.
"We would love six wins, but it is a tough ask. Our intention is to try and win every one of them and see where that takes us," Stoke manager Mark Hughes said. "We have improved each season so far, and maybe this year we are going to need a greater tally to finish higher than ninth. We usually finish strongly, so if we can do that then we will be pleased with what we have achieved come the end of the season.
"Europe has always been a target of ours. If we miss out this year then we will have another real go next year. We are aspiring to become a club who challenge for European positions year in year out. A lot of clubs around us have similar ambitions - with three of those teams coming up over the course of the next few weeks."
Liverpool beat Stoke 1-0 at The Britannia on the opening day of the season, with Philippe Coutinho scoring the game's only goal on 86 minutes. The Reds are unbeaten in seven Premier League matches (4-3-0) at Anfield versus the Potters, outscoring them 8-0.
Stoke's second-leg League Cup victory that forced penalties ended a 36-match winless streak at Anfield dating back to a 4-3 win in the 1958-59 season. The Potters enter this contest with a 30-match winless run (0-4-26) in league play since that victory.