Gerrard 2' (pen)
Walters 5' 49'
Liverpool, so stunned by winning its first penalty of the season (within 45 seconds no less), proceed to throw the match away in the next ten minutes and are never able to recover. Yep. Sounds about right.
Can you hate a team for being good at what they do? Yes, yes you can. Because, seriously, fuck Stoke.
The equalizer was Stoke boiled down to its pure essence. Shawcross thumps it out of defense, Jones out-jumps Agger to knock down the long ball, Walters picks up possession, shoves over Skrtel, and fires a shot past Reina before Johnson can come over to cover. It canceled out the dream start, as Skrtel's hoof towards Suarez baited Shawcross into dragging the Uruguayan down by his shirt, with Webb actually pointing to the spot and Gerrard sending Begovic the wrong way.
For the seven minutes after Walters' strike, Liverpool were in full panic mode, pretty much running around screaming as if on fire, allowing Stoke to get another very Stoke second. Surprise, surprise, this time it was a set play: Whelan's corner, Jones in front of Agger and Gerrard at the near post, and neither Reina nor Johnson able to repel the header thanks to being shielded by Shawcross. It rivaled Everton and West Ham for the speed in which elation turned to utter despair. Unlike against West Ham, and less so Everton, it did not get better. Not by a long shot.
At least Liverpool settled after the 25th minute – thank heavens for small favors – with Etherington's blast from the top of the box Stoke's only chance to extend the lead while Liverpool were on tilt. Gerrard had an effort from the top of the box narrowly wide, Suarez saw his near post shot saved by Begovic, but otherwise, the rest of the first half was standard Liverpool versus Stoke fare: lots of possession, very little breakthrough, with excellent pressing and last-ditch defending by the home side.
And then the second half started in the worst possible manner, despite replacing Suso with Sterling, as Stoke completed the Stoke hat-trick. The first was a hoof from the defense, the second from a corner, the third from a long throw. Wilkinson lofted it into the box, Jones won yet another aerial duel, and Walters controlled with his chest, beautifully (I use that term loosely) steering the volley past Reina with Agger not sticking close to his man.
Game well and truly over. Henderson finally came on, again for Lucas (as against West Ham and Villa) rather than the disappointing Shelvey, while Joe Cole's cameo once again demonstrated just how bare Liverpool's cupboard is. While Liverpool continued to dominate possession (final tally: 62.4-37.6%), Stoke let Liverpool dominate possession, happy to soak up the away side's impotence. I'm struggling to think of any meaningful second-half chance until Gerrard's 87th minute shot from distance finally tested Begovic. It just got more and more frustrating, both for Liverpool players and fans, with hardly any, if any, silver linings.
One step forward, two steps back. Again. A storming comeback at West Ham without Liverpool's best player followed by a demoralizing defeat at Anfield to a side which went on to lose its next two matches by a combined 12-0. A rampant, never-in-doubt 4-0 victory against a side Liverpool hadn't beaten since May 2011 followed by today's abortion.
It was the first time in 44 matches that Stoke scored more than two goals in the league, the last against relegated Blackburn on November 26, 2011. It was the third time Liverpool conceded three goals in a league match this season; it happened four times through all of last season, five times in 2010-11, and just nine times in total through Rafa Benitez's 228 league matches (never more than twice in a season).
I have a lot of time for Brendan Rodgers, whose hands are tied in a lot of ways, but he cannot keep making the same mistakes. Not wanting to change a winning side was marginally understandable, but that both Suso and Shelvey would struggle against Stoke was fairly easy to predict. As against Everton (and, to a lesser extent, Wigan), Rodgers had to rectify his initial error by taking off Suso at halftime, although Shelvey stayed on for the full 90 minutes.
Most unforgivable is the chronic regression in defense, both in the back four and Reina. Jones and Walters have given Skrtel and Agger problems before, but they ran riot today. Jones won 19 of his 32 aerial duels, just as Benteke won 10 of 17 and Carlton Cole 7 of 12. I simply do not understand why the defense has gotten worse – we know Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, and Enrique are capable players – and Liverpool no longer have the excuse of Lucas' absence.
Finally, the tactical inflexibility is getting old. Not counting last season's cup ties, Liverpool have best coped with Stoke when playing with three at the back, whether in the 2-0 win in February 2011 or even the 0-0 at Anfield last January. Like when Rodgers made the halftime change against Everton, it would have blunted Stoke's primary threats, whether hoofed from defense or crossed from the flanks. Coates' continuing absence, seemingly on track for a January loan, is harder and harder to explain.
I cannot and will not call for the manager's head. Even if Rodgers ultimately proves to be the wrong choice – which I'm nowhere near certain will be the case – Liverpool would assuredly be worse off with yet another managerial change so soon. He needs time and patience, this side needs time and patience – we knew as much going into the season – especially given the squad's holes and faults. But make no mistake. At times, he's been just as culpable as the players and the ownership for Liverpool's failings this season.
The Liverpool players cannot keep making the same mistakes, FSG cannot keep making the same mistakes (wave to the £12m Daniel Sturridge, everyone), and Rodgers cannot keep making mistakes.
Or Liverpool will keep taking two steps backwards after one step forward.