Shawcross OG 5'
Suarez 32' 71'
Gerrard 51' (pen)
Well, if you're too disorganized to prevent the opposition from scoring, make sure you're potent enough to score more than they do.
Liverpool hadn't won a single one of the five league matches at the Britannia since Stoke's promotion in 2008-09. They'd scored all of two goals in those five matches: Gerrard's penalty in last season's 1-3 loss and Kyrgiakos' set play header in a 1-1 draw in 2009-10. Stoke had lost just one league match at home this season – albeit to Norwich – beating Chelsea and holding both City and Everton to draws. In the process, they'd conceded just seven league goals in those 10 league matches this season. Stoke hasn't conceded five at home in a league match in more than 15 years, on the last day of the season in 1997-98, relegated from the Championship to League One after a 2-5 loss to Manchester City.
So this is something of a momentous victory, even if it's much more the relief of passing a massive kidney stone rather than a cause for euphoric celebration.
Because make no mistake, this Liverpool team still has very visible problems, and Stoke laid almost all of them bare. But Liverpool were resilient enough, potent enough to overcome them. That hasn't always been the case, that won't always be the case, but it's still incredibly gratifying to see today.
Liverpool's first two goals were so very, very Stoke. As in last season's meeting, Liverpool scored within five minutes, this time from a more-than-speculative long range shot from Cissokho haplessly deflected by Shawcross into his own net. And as in last season's meeting, Liverpool subsequently conceded the initiative to the home side, under threat thanks to Adam and Walters constant attacks down Liverpool's left and six Stoke corners in the first 25 minutes.
But Liverpool held firm, doing just enough to block those crosses and clear those corners. And then Skrtel's aimless hoof from defense somehow found Suarez, pressing Marc Wilson into a dire mistake, sneaking in to poke past Butland before Butland could recover. Two goals is enough right? Last season, one obviously wasn't but Liverpool couldn't possibly give up a two-goal lead against Stoke.
Ha. They most certainly could, in slightly more than five minutes. The first came on one of Stoke's few forays down Liverpool's right. Unlike Cissokho and Coutinho's defense on the opposite flank, Johnson and Suarez allowed Arnautovic all the time in the world to measure in his cross, which flawlessly found Crouch, who'd somehow shirked
Okay. Deep breaths. Liverpool still had the lead, and had the chance to extend that lead just a minute later thanks to an excellent counter-attack, but Coutinho shot straight at Butland and Shawcross somehow beat Coutinho to the rebound.
And then, abject idiocy. Henderson gave the ball away in his own half, misplaying a pass to Gerrard that caused Gerrard to slip. Adam picked up possession, "charged" (well, Adam's version of charging) at a retreating Skrtel, and hammered an unstoppable blast past Mignolet. Because of course the two ex-Liverpool players would be the two Stoke players that got Stoke back into the game.
It's the third straight away match where Liverpool found a way to throw away a lead. Liverpool may want to do something to remedy that. Sure, Rodgers' hands were somewhat tied. Agger, Sakho, Enrique, and Flanagan injured meant that back four had to start, despite Johnson's complete loss of form, despite Skrtel's constant propensity for errors. Allen's injury, with Sturridge only fit enough for the bench, meant that Gerrard-Henderson-Lucas had to be the midfield, even if it was strange to see Gerrard as the deepest midfielder with Lucas in the link role. Conceding those goals and that lead were still very bad things, and even worse, things we've seen before.
But credit where due. Liverpool responded to the setback, regrouped at halftime. And, not long after, Liverpool were helped massively by a soft penalty. Not a dubious penalty, but a soft one. Sterling tore away on the counter, leaned into Wilson, and went down when Wilson threw his hip into him. It's a penalty. But it's a penalty we don't see given all the time. So, hey thanks for doing your job, Anthony Taylor. Gerrard stepped up, sending Butland the wrong way, restoring an advantage Liverpool wouldn't relent for the rest of the match. Though not for a lack of trying.
To be fair, the defensive and midfield, with the same players in the same positions, looked better organized, although there wasn't much room for regression given the way the first half ended. But Stoke didn't create a single chance from the restart until the 83rd minute. And by that time, Liverpool were again two goals to the good.
The key to that was the return of Daniel Sturridge, brought on for Coutinho in the 66th minute, almost immediately reviving his life-partnership with Luis Suarez. Five minutes after the Englishman's entrance, Liverpool had four, again exposing Stoke on the counter. Sturridge held up Gerrard's long pass, drawing defenders before playing a delightfully cheeky pass to Suarez in space inside the box, finished with all the aplomb you'd expect from a player with 22 goals in 16 league matches. It's the eighth time he's scored at least twice this season. That's 50% of the league matches he's played this season. That's preposterous.
And that should have been the final curtain. But Liverpool relaxed. And you can never relax at Stoke, not with those mouth-breathing mutants on the pitch and in the stands. Mignolet had to brilliantly claw Walters' header away in the 83rd minute – Stoke's first chance of the half – but should have done better a minute later, as Arnautovic's low cross found the same player, dancing around Toure before placing a shot that the Belgian could have saved. 4-3. Hearts back in stomach, testicles retreating back into the body, Stoke's goal swiftly followed by a Crouch free header thankfully well wide of goal.
But then Suarridge struck again, reversing their earlier roles. Again, Gerrard over the top, Sterling laying off for Suarez, Suarez's early cross finding Sturridge bursting into the box. Butland denied the first point-blank effort but Sturridge kept his bearings, somehow kept the ball from going out, heading the ball to himself to get back in front of goal before burying it into the net.
From there, Crouch hit the post, Gerrard nearly scored an own goal, but a two-goal lead for the third time in the match was finally enough. The third time's the charm.
So yeah, that was frightening and often less than fun. But that's Stoke. Traveling to Stoke, if you hadn't figured it out by now, is somewhere between "war crimes" and "prostate exam" on the scale of fun. Somehow, it was good enough, mainly thanks to the undying artistry from Suarez and Sturridge.
Liverpool's forwards were excellent – Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling. Liverpool's defense and midfield did *just* enough, and it was only enough because of how excellent Liverpool's strikers were. Stoke had 11 corners (and two free kicks in dangerous locations). Liverpool conceded three goals. And yet none of those goals came from one of those 13 set plays. Hey, that's progress. Stoke played 51 crosses, and Liverpool only conceded on two of them. Also progress.
On that ground, against that opposition, any way you can get three points is good enough. Especially when the side shows both the resilience and firepower they showed today.