Football - Football League Cup - Semi-Final 2nd Leg - Liverpool FC v Stoke City FC

STOKE at home. Nothing to play for. Only Stoke at home. Nothing to play for. Might as well not go.

When I was 12, I went to my first match at Anfield. It was a League Cup game on a midweek night against Portsmouth. They were then, as now, mired somewhere in football’s oblivion. We were by far the greatest team the world had ever seen. The contest was only going to be one on paper.

I was 12 and had been a Liverpool supporter for about two years. I’d gone from being a sports disinterested kid from London to someone who lived only for Liverpool FC within a matter of months. The series of chemical reactions that set this all in motion I’ll bore you with some other time. Suffice to say, whatever it is that Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 12.47.52gets you about the game, about our club, it had me, and it has never let me go.

I now live in Liverpool. I’m in the swing of going to about 36 out of 38 league games a season, and quite a few in the cups as well. I’m watching a lot of live football. I’m seeing the Mighty Reds in the flesh every week. I never stop counting these blessings.

I don’t stop counting and I don’t stop forgetting because of the memory. I won’t be able to do it justice descriptively but that first year or two I was beginning to visit Anfield at a rate of about three or four times a year on the train from Euston were experiences that have stayed with me into middle age.

I look back at the actual fixtures now, and there were no semi finals, title deciders, derbies, or clashes against Manchester United or Arsenal in that spell for me. No events worthy of VHS, DVD or games you’ll be able to find on YouTube today.

My first home games were against Portsmouth, Brighton, and Luton Town.

The ground wasn’t full for a single one of them. The atmosphere never reached levels that anyone got misty eyed about in subsequent years.

The games themselves were a mixed bag.

In my mind’s eye though, the sun was always shining. Anfield was a vision in red and green, and it smelt so perfect — grass, newspaper, dampness, warmth, gravy, timber and plastic. An airborne cocktail you’ll never know until you set foot in a football ground.

To watch the Reds in real life. To have the 2D barrier of the TV removed. To see all that. To smell the whole thing. This was the stuff of dreams.

Some memories, the best ones, live longest in the gut. I don’t mean that metaphorically. Those sensations that are, for biological reasons I’ve never had explained to me, experienced as literal physical sensations in the stomach. If I close my eyes I think of Anfield all those years ago. I feel it in that pit.

It’s a wonderful and simultaneously painful recall. As all nostalgia is. In Ancient Greek the word nostalgia refers to the pain of an old battle wound.

Stoke at home. Nothing to play for. Only Stoke at home. Nothing to play for. Might as well not go.

Have I made my point? Can I go now?

Football - Football League Cup - Semi-Final 1st Leg - Stoke City FC v Liverpool FC

A football match always matters. And not just because its always someone’s first time. When you choose to love your club forever you make a pledge with your soul that when your team’s first 11 are gathered that you will be there in spirit, at the very least, every single time. Your team will never be just a foot note in your day. Never something you can just pick up and put down.

It must always matter, and if you can’t see it mattering, you just aren’t looking hard enough, or you simply aren’t really in love.

These are the reasons why Stoke at home matters:

  • If we win and others don’t, then we are that bit more in unlikely contention for a Champions League place. In turn, our next match will then matter even more. In turn a dream can begin to build again
  • Liverpool need to at least finish in the top seven to attain European football next season. No small thing this, as we are now finding out upon this season’s continental adventure
  • Sheyi Ojo or Jordon Ibe might score a hat-trick. It might be a day from which they never look back. It might be the day that a great Liverpool career is born
  • Liverpool might get a big win — 4-0 perhaps. That would be a thing to see. When is Liverpool winning big not one of the most beautiful sights on God’s green earth?
  • If Liverpool play well and lots of players play well then our already whetted appetites for the Dortmund game next Thursday will be positively ravenous
  • Liverpool might lose, and key players get injured, and our mood might totally blacken. This must not happen. It is important that it doesn’t.

Jürgen Klopp agrees with me. We’ve discussed this all in detail…in my head. Jürgen reminds me “a journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step”. Jürgen remembers the first time. It’s always like the first time for Jürgen. That’s how he keeps so chipper.

DORTMUND, GERMANY - Thursday, April 7, 2016: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp during the UEFA Europa League Quarter-Final 1st Leg match against Borussia Dortmund at Westfalenstadion. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Jürgen’s not soft. He knows Dortmund next week is the biggest game of our season, and whatever gifts I can contrive that Stoke may bring, he’s rightly taking no chances.

Fortunately, the hand of fate has dictated that what might have been a series of selection posers are in fact a collection of neatly binary options.

No need to worry about resting Emre Can or Jordan Henderson for next week, as Emre’s suspended and Jordan’s injured. Roberto Firmino and Daniel Sturridge, for differing reasons, couldn’t start in Germany last week, so they are ripe and ready. They play. Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana are therefore benched without too much regret.

It could be the most important game of the decade, but because of the Henderson/Can situation, the manager is forced to put out a scratch midfield whether he likes it or not.

– Listen to this week’s Friday Show looking back at Dortmund and forward at Stoke for FREE

Joe Allen only played 45 mins last week and probably needs the match time. He’s an obvious starter. Will he get just one partner in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 style set up, or two in a 4-3-3?

A lack of options may force gung ho-ness on Kloppo. Allen likely then to be assisted by just one of Kevin Stewart or Lucas Leiva — both short of game fitness following injuries, although the manager revealed both players got 45 minutes in a behind-closed-doors friendly with Burnley this week.

There’s a case for partnering Divock Origi and Sturridge up front and just throwing the kitchen sink at Stoke, consequences be damned. The plan then, to pull Daniel on 60 minutes, knowing he will start versus Dortmund, and Origi will in turn replace him in the last quarter at Anfield on Thursday.

Stoke are apparently injury decimated and all sorts of lads face late fitness tests. It would be just swell if they mainly failed these tests.

We could do without Stoke’s periodic aptitude for full throttle and heavy metal football. Tame surrender please, gents. We want a home win. We want to feel like the big team European competition suggests we are becoming.

Stoke at home. Nothing to play for. Only Stoke at home. Nothing to play for. Might as well not go.

Stoke at home this season is an important game. I’m making it so. The Reds will too. Here is the highly relevant 11 to send the Potters potty: Mignolet; Flanagan, Toure, Skrtel, Smith; Allen, Lucas; Firmino, Ibe, Milner; Sturridge.

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