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Jan 15, 2010

ESPN Soccernet Preview: Stoke v Liverpool

• Live on ESPN2 at 07.45 ET

May 2005 was a month that brought contrasting fortunes for Rafael Benitez and Tony Pulis. Stoke City had finished an unspectacular 12th in the Championship, and Pulis was sacked by the club's Icelandic owners after three years at the helm, moving on to Plymouth Argyle. Benitez, on the other hand, brought the European Cup back to Anfield after a 21-year wait and had written his name into the Liverpool history books in his debut season.

Fast forward to 2010 and the managers' fortunes have changed dramatically. Pulis rejoined Stoke in 2006 and led the unglamorous Staffordshire side up to the top flight for the first time in 23 years, consolidating the Potters' Premier League status with an impressive 12th place finish and garnering plaudits for creating an organised and obdurate side. For Benitez, the story since the Champions League triumph has been one of lofty rhetoric but limited success, with the 2005 Super Cup and 2006 FA Cup the only other trophies collected by the Spanish boss.

After losing to Reading midweek, under-pressure Benitez is desperate for a victory to appease fans, still in disbelief after watching their team exit from another competition, having already waved goodbye to the Champions League, Carling Cup and Premier League title race. But they will have to overcome a stubborn Stoke side, determined to establish themselves as top-flight regulars, not relegation fodder and difficult to beat at the Britannia Stadium.

Stoke player in focus: Tuncay Sanli - With 22 goals in 72 international games for Turkey, Tuncay may have demonstrated that he is an accomplished finisher, but he has yet to prove he can be as prolific in the Premier League. An inconsistent two-year spell at Middlesbrough yielded 18 goals in 78 games but Tony Pulis saw enough quality in the former Fenerbahce star to pay Boro £5 million for his services.

Liverpool player in focus: Alberto Aquilani - It has been just over a month since the Italian midfielder made his Liverpool debut in the home Champions League defeat to Fiorentina, and opinion still seems to be divided over the £20 million man. Those who worry about his conditioning have extra reason to be concerned ahead of the Stoke game; Aquilani had never completed a full 90 minutes for Liverpool before the FA Cup exit to Reading, but was kept on the pitch for all 120 in the defeat, meaning he could be tired for this one.

Key battle: David Ngog v Ryan Shawcross - Stoke centre-back Ryan Shawcross has established a fearsome reputation as one of the Premier League's toughest defenders after a series of impressive top flight displays over the past 18 months. An imperious debut season in the Championship helped Stoke to promotion and the step up to the top flight appeared a seemless one for the England Under-21 international. At 6' 3'', David Ngog is a striker who has the potential to challenge Shawcross physically and he will relish an extended run in the first-team. The 20-year-old has proved a useful deputy to Torres and though he has started only nine games this season in all competitions, he has six goals to his name. After shutting Liverpool out for 180 minutes last season, Shawcross will need to be fully focused if he is to repeat that feat and silence the hungry Ngog.

Tactics: Stoke are a robust team and will look to impose themselves on the game from the off. Alberto Aquilani has yet to prove whether he can cut the physical mustard in the Premier League and this will be a big test for him against a midfield that will not be afraid of turning the game into a battle. Rory Delap's throw-ins continue to be a useful asset, and set-pieces remain the Potters' biggest threat, so Liverpool's questionable zonal marking system is likely to be tested as often as possible. New Liverpool signing Maxi Rodriguez could be handed his start but he is likely to get a rough introduction to Premier League life with no-nonsense Robert Huth playing at right-back for Stoke.

Quotes: Jamie Carragher takes a leaf out of his manager's book and tries to focus on the next game after the FA Cup defeat to Reading: "We have to accept they deserved it. But, at the same time, we have got to look at ourselves and the way we performed was not acceptable. We've got a massive game coming up against Stoke now. It will be very tough, as we played extra time and we have got to show enormous character to come back."

Chairman Peter Coates on the potential signing of Ruud van Nistelrooy: "It may be a long shot, but we've made enquiries and we'll see what comes from them. We're too far away from it to know how realistic the chances are of it happening. We really don't know at this stage."

In the news: Liverpool have had the spotlight on their performances after defeat to Reading. Former club captain Ronnie Whelan called for Rafa to be axed. "He should have gone a long time ago, they have got to do it now," Whelan told BBC Radio Five Live. Tom Hick Jnr's e-mail tirade didn't help the Anfield PR machine either.

Stoke team news: Tuncay looks to have recovered from the hamstring injury he picked up against Fulham and should be involved, while Pulis might be tempted to use James Beattie - expected to leave in January - in order to put him in the shop window. Thomas Sorensen is still out, so Steve Simonsen will continue to deputise unless David James is signed in time.

Liverpool team news: Liverpool have been decimated by injuries. Lead marksman Fernando Torres requires knee surgery and will be out of action for six weeks. Steven Gerrard (hamstring) is out for a fortnight while Yossi Benayoun (fractured rib) faces three to four weeks on the sidelines. Glen Johnson (knee) and Albert Riera are still out. Javier Mascherano has now served his four-match suspension and Maxi Rodriguez is in line to make his debut.

Probable Stoke line-up (4-4-2): Simonsen, Huth, Faye, Shawcross, Higginbotham, Lawrence, Whitehead, Delap, Etherington, Sidibe, Tuncay

Probable Liverpool line-up (4-4-2): Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Agger, Insua, Mascherano, Aquilani, Lucas, Rodriguez, Kuyt, Ngog

Soccernet prediction: After being knocked out of the FA Cup by a Championship side and with just six wins in 20 games it was difficult to see how things could get any worse for Liverpool. But the news that Torres, Gerrard and Benayoun face lengthy spells out of action has dealt a massive blow to Rafa's hopes of getting a positive result against the Potters. Stoke will relish the chance to claim a big scalp and go a step further after drawing home and away with Liverpool last season; Pulis' side will pick up all three points.

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