Stoke never make it easy. Liverpool needed two superlative goals, two vibrant wildflowers in an otherwise barren field, to cancel out an unlucky concession and return to Wembley for the second time this season.
Other than Suarez and Downing's rays of sunshine, we were treated to typical Stoke attrition. The away side hoofed and hoofed, hoping for set plays and settling for crosses toward Crouch and Walters. The home side had the majority of possession but frequently broke down in a jam-packed final third.
Dalglish kept faith with 10 from the 11 who faced Everton, replacing Henderson with Maxi, shifting Downing to the right flank. The inverted wingers led to both breakthroughs – Maxi setting up Suarez's thunderbolt, Downing scoring after cutting inside – but Liverpool struggled to put Stoke under consistent goal-mouth pressure. But the tactics worked as much as necessary. After all, Stoke never make it easy.
It took 23 minutes to carve out an opportunity, but what an opportunity it was. Suarez and Maxi worked a wonderful one-two cutting from the left, Suarez flawlessly controlled the difficult return in stride, and absolutely thwacked an unstoppable blast past Sorensen from the top of the D.
But Liverpool's joy was short-lived. Unable to clear a string of corners, Liverpool finally conceded on the third. A third which shouldn't have been given, as the second never touched a Liverpool player, but still a third should have been dealt with. Carroll, usually one of Liverpool's better set-play defenders, stood staring agape as Crouch easily eluded his marker, with Reina prevented from coming to the rescue when fairly blocked off by Shotton. The ex-Liverpool striker couldn't have missed from three yards out. Stoke nearly tallied a second with Liverpool temporarily knocked a-kilter, but Walters could only shoot into the side-netting when released behind Enrique by Whitehead on the break, and Liverpool finished the half back on top, in possession if not in chances.
It wasn't night and day, but Liverpool noticeably improved in the second half, if still not comprehensively. There were times when Stoke had the advantage in midfield, compared to Everton having none, but Liverpool again had better balance when playing 4-4-2 with Spearing and Gerrard in midfield against an opposition using the same formation.
Downing's flawless free kick, crossed directly onto Suarez's head in the 53rd but flicked wide of the far post, was a sign of things to come. Four minutes later, Downing and Gerrard combined, if fortunately, when Gerrard's possibly unintentional backheel allowed Downing to cut across the top of the box before driving a shot through defenders into the net. It's no coincidence both Liverpool goals came from wingers working one-twos with central attackers, cutting in from the flanks. It's almost as if Liverpool drew it up that way.
Having retaken the lead, there looked little likelihood that Liverpool would softly relinquish it a second time. Suarez had a couple of self-created chances to get his second (both saved), Carroll finally got between the bruising Shawcross and Huth only to head wide, and Kelly saw his close-range shot blocked at the last moment by Shawcross (again after a one-two triangle down the flank, this time with substitute Kuyt). Stoke had a handful of late chances for another set play stomach punch, through Pennant corners and Delap long throws, but Liverpool solidly defended on all.
Other than the goals, nothing was as spectacular as against Everton. That's a credit to Stoke rather than a lesser performance from Liverpool, either individually or as a unit. Gerrard wasn't as rampant, Downing gave the ball away more often, Carroll was less involved, and a fifth-minute booking restrained Kelly. Maxi, Suarez, Downing, and Gerrard started and finished the moves which led to Liverpool's goals, but Stoke kept most under-wraps for long stretches – except the often-unwrappable Suarez, who's finally returning his best form. Still, Liverpool did what they intended – other than conceding on a corner that wasn't a corner – a two-match win streak since consecutive losses against Sunderland and Arsenal. And Liverpool took two of its few chances, scoring world-class goals rather than missing multiple sitters. Baby steps.
Liverpool haven't been able to win ugly often enough, especially considering how ugly Liverpool have been in certain games. But this is the second such victory over Stoke, in different domestic cup competitions, achieved both home and away. A side which has given Liverpool problems from the moment they stepped foot in the Premier League. This steady redevelopment of confidence, a settled line-up evolving but with a tactical twist on Tuesday's romp, is almost as heartwarming as another trip to Wembley.