Mark Hughes is no stranger to cup semi-finals. The Welshman has reached the last four of domestic knockout competition four times previously, only for his dreams to have been extinguished by one of the big boys on three occasions, plus a P45 on another. In each instance, fortune hasn’t been kind but this probably represents his best opportunity to date.
In four years at Blackburn, Hughes was denied trips to the Millennium Stadium by Arsenal in the FA Cup (2005) and Manchester United in the League Cup (2006), while the grand opening of the new Wembley in 2007 was destined to be the setting for Jose Mourinho’s swansong in his first stint at Chelsea, with Rovers edged out in extra time at Old Trafford.
Who knows, it might have been third time lucky for Hughes on his former stomping ground in M16 had he been allowed to finish the job he started at Manchester City. As it was, Roberto Mancini took charge of the the blockbuster derby double-header and he was unable to overcome Red Devils, despite taking a 2-1 advantage across town.
Stoke come into this clash as underdogs, but better fancied than any of Hughes’ previous runners. And history suggests that underdogs tend to perform well when playing the first leg on home soil - at least over those initial 90 minutes. Over the past ten seasons, 11 teams have started the outbound journey 2/1 or bigger on home soil and seven have obliged by giving themselves something to hold on to in the return.
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Only four have managed to complete the job, so this tie would be a long way from done, but it’s a sample that includes Derby beating United at nearly 10/1, Ipswich beating Arsenal at 11/1, Bradford beating Aston Villa at nearly 4/1 and Sunderland beating United at 4/1, so let’s not underestimate the psychology that points towards the Potters doing the business here at 11/5.
Stoke know this is their best chance, arguably their only chance. For them, it has to be a no-holds-barred approach because nobody wants to go to Anfield under floodlights with the hard yards still to be covered. For Liverpool, the fallback of knowing the tie will ultimately be settled on home soil puts them in a stick-or-twist scenario here, an unsettling mindset that has trumped better teams in the past.
Moreover, the Reds have been rather underwhelming on the road over the past month, firing blanks on their way to defeats at Newcastle (0-2), Watford (0-3) and West Ham (0-2) having earlier set the world alight with Dortmund-esque cricket scores at Manchester City and Southampton.
The away goals rule only comes into play after extra time of the second leg, which effectively translates as ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’, yet the market appears to think this game will be cagey, as though the hosts will be most concerned with not conceding. Don’t go along with it. Instead, take some of the 6/1 about Stoke to win and both teams to score.
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