26 October 2011

Liverpool 2-1 Stoke

Jones 43'
Suarez 54' 85'

For 53 minutes, it was last month at Stoke and last weekend at Norwich all over again. The same overriding, unavoidable, all-consuming narrative: Liverpool couldn't take their chances while the opposition managed to tally from far fewer, usually from a defensive mistake. In the 54th minute, the overriding, unavoidable, all-consuming Luis Suarez changed the narrative. And after 90 minutes, Liverpool are into the quarterfinals of the Carling Cup, having finally overhauled a deficit under Dalglish, scoring a much-missed late winner in the process.

Today's frustrating display was slightly less aesthetically pleasing than Saturday's cruel, unfulfilled domination. With Carroll back in the starting XI and Lucas and Spearing in midfield, Liverpool were far more direct, far happier to look for the early ball to one of the two strikers, either to be held up by the target-man or run onto by the speedy dribbler. Liverpool still had the chances to miss the chances – Suarez kneed a rebound from Carroll's strike wide; Lucas, Agger, Maxi, and Suarez diced Stoke open but Sorensen made the close-range save; Carroll spurned a couple of opportunities – but not in as dramatic a fashion as against Norwich.

And then came the requited stomach punch. There was always an air of vulnerability when Stoke came forward, more so than in Liverpool's last two frustrations, mostly due to Jones and Walters' physicality up front and Etherington's crossing ability. Coates mostly coped well, paired with Carragher in the first half and Skrtel in the second, using his height to nullify Jones. But in the 43th minute, Liverpool were again punished for a solitary mistake: Coates let a long clearance bounce near the touchline, expecting a throw-in. Walters muscled his way in and, with Agger caught upfield, charged down the flank, cutting back for Jones (who had peeled away from Carragher) to deftly head into the far corner. The story of the season.

A goalless streak of such horrendous, implausible proportion was always going to need a wonder strike to dispel the curse. Suarez' indescribably perfect blast was just such a strike, guaranteed to top the end-of-season goal lists. Killing a cross-field pass with one touch, he feinted, nutmegged Shotton, and curled an outlandish shot into the far corner. A beautiful, beautiful goal incongruent with the mainly disheveled contest.

The picturesque goal did little to change the course of the game. At 1-1, Liverpool were marginally on top – with a couple of half-chances to Stoke's none – but the home side continued to threaten simply by being Stoke. Both teams seemed if not content with extra-time at least aware it was the most likely possibility. Carragher replaced Sktrel during the interval, but Liverpool's first attacking substitution came with just over ten minutes to play. Bellamy replaced Maxi and created Liverpool's best chance since the goal, but scuffed Carroll's layoff onto the post.

A minute later, Liverpool were ahead, again thanks to Luis Suarez. Less miraculous than the first but oh so much more important, Suarez was in the right place at the right time to receive Henderson's clever first-time ball over the top, heading past Sorensen at the back post.

After seeing out the inevitable quasi-pressure in injury time, it's Liverpool's first win from a losing position under Dalglish – the first since beating Bolton on New Year's Day. It's Liverpool first domestic late winner since the same match, with the lone under Dalglish against Sparta in the Europa League.

Suarez will obviously get the headlines, as is his wont and rightfully so. But the majority of the side turned in decent if not jaw-dropping performances. Workmanlike rather than wondrous. Other than his costly misstep, Coates was impressive, negating Stoke's much-discussed strengths. Liverpool looked much more secure with the Uruguayan partnering Skrtel. Agger did surprisingly well at left-back; put into the lineup to help combat Stoke's aerial threat, the defender's also known for his talent with the ball at his feet. Both Spearing and Lucas were tidy and efficient in midfield, although the pairing seemed to exacerbate the long-ball tendency. Carroll put in a shift as well: dropping deep, tracking back, and showing a few hoped-for combinations with his strike partner, if still lacking in confidence in the box. It's churlish to mention that Liverpool still don't look like scoring if it's not coming from Suarez.

The result should be a massive boost, showing the fortitude to finally shed multiple monkeys of their back: getting the needed goal and then getting the second, a late win and a comeback, into the next round and avenging last month's disappointing defeat. It should go without saying, but saying the obvious is a hobby. Now Liverpool need to build on those multiple steps forward. Which is easier said than done.

West Brom on Saturday. I'm sure we'll hear something about their manager's history with Liverpool between now and then.

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