By Séamus Leonard
After a summer spent wondering whether Luis Suarez would remain a Liverpool player and then getting sick of hearing about the saga, Liverpool will finally kick a ball in anger again when Stoke City arrives at Anfield to open the 2013/14 Premier League season.
The Suarez affair has been a blessing for the media in a summer otherwise devoid of notable transfer action, but the circus surrounding the Uruguayan’s desire for a move has been an unwelcome distraction for manager Brendan Rodgers as he tries to mould a side capable of returning the Reds to Champions League football.
Thankfully, on the eve of the new campaign, Suarez has resumed training with the first team after reportedly apologizing to his teammates for his behavior over the close season. It would appear that the former Ajax striker has accepted Liverpool’s stance that he will not be sold under any circumstances.
While Suarez has been the major talking point of Liverpool’s pre-season, he will not be involved in the first six fixtures as he serves the remainder of his 10-game ban for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic at the tail end of last season.
The number seven featured fleetingly in the Reds’ pre-season, which saw the club win six of seven outings and concede just two goals along the way. While the results look good on paper, the quality of opposition left a lot to be desired and last Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to what was essentially a reserve Celtic side was slightly worrying. The main concern stemmed from the fact that Celtic was so physically superior to Liverpool, especially in the first half. Although Mark Hughes has replaced Tony Pulis as manager at Stoke, the Potters remain a powerful side and Liverpool’s players will have to be markedly stronger in the tackle if they to avoid being overpowered in that department.
One major positive from the pre-season activity is that Rodgers would appear to have a fairly good idea of what his starting side will be. Simon Mignolet has impressed in goal since arriving from Sunderland, and the Belgian stopper is the undisputed first choice after Pepe Reina’s departure to Napoli on loan.
There were a few eyebrows raised when Kolo Toure was brought in on a free transfer after his contract expired with Manchester City, but the Ivorian international looks in great shape and his performances thus far suggest he is an excellent replacement, albeit likely a short-term one, for the recently retired Jamie Carragher.
The big decision for Rodgers will be whether to start striker Daniel Sturridge. The England international spent the summer recovering from an ankle injury sustained in a friendly against the Republic of Ireland in a friendly in May, but he looked razor sharp after he was introduced at half time against Celtic. The former Chelsea forward is unlikely to be able to last 90 minutes, so Rodgers must decide if it is better to start him or hold him in reserve to unleash on a tiring Stoke in the closing stages.
Positive outlook for Potters
The visitors undertook a pre-season tour to the United States where they lost to Houston Dynamo before recording victories against FC Dallas and Philadelphia Union. Stoke’s squad is likely to include Liverpool old boys Peter Crouch, Charlie Adam and Jermaine Pennant.
Although the men from the Britannia Stadium have proven difficult opponents for Liverpool since they won promotion to the Premier League in 2008, the Potters have not recorded a win at Anfield since March 1959. A more encouraging statistic for Hughes will be that Stoke have secured goalless draws on their last two visits to L4, while Liverpool have not won a season opener in four years.
The Reds have yet to prove that they can be as clinical as necessary in front of goal, but if Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho can continue where they left off at the end of last season, then the home fans may get the positive start they are looking for.
If you are in the greater Boston area, you will be able to watch the match at The Phoenix Landing with LFC Boston. If not, you can watch it on NBC Sports Network, with coverage starting at 0745 EST.
Liverpool v Stoke City
When: Saturday, August 17, 0745 EST/1245 BST
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: Liverpool 1-0 QPR, Southampton 1-1 Stoke City
League Position 2012-13: Liverpool 7th (61 points), Stoke City 13th (42 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Toure, Agger, Jose Enrique
MID: Gerrard, Lucas, Henderson
FW: Sterling, Sturridge, Coutinho
Subs from: Jones, Flanagan, Skrtel, Coates, Wisdom, Allen, Alberto, Ibe, Assaidi, Borini, Aspas.
Projected Stoke Starting 11
DEF: Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Pieters
MID: Walters, Palacios, Nzonzi, Adam, Etherington
Subs from: Sorenson, Shotton, Wilkinson, Muniesa, Jones, Wilson, Kightly, Cuvelier, Whelan, Pennant, Jerome, Jones.
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard