10 April 2016

Liverpool 4-1 Stoke

Moreno 8'
Bojan 22'
Sturridge 33'
Origi 50' 65'

That was unexpected.

An even more makeshift XI than we'd guessed. Sheyi Ojo's first Liverpool start, Kevin Stewart's first start in the league. Either a 4-2-3-1 with Allen tucking in on the left or a very, very lopsided 4-3-3 formation. Two incredibly unlikely goals from distance, two point-blank headers from picture-perfect crosses.

It was nervy for 10 minutes – after Liverpool, again, conceded an equalizer from, again, a set play – but it ended an easy 4-1 win, the final 30 minutes an utter formality. Almost, but not quite as emphatic an embarrassment to the opposition as last season's 1-6 horror show.

Moreno started the party atmosphere following a quick free kick, an unfathomable rocket from distance, probably the best shot he'll hit in his life. But, and not for the first time, Liverpool couldn't immediately build on it, and conceded an equalizer within 15 minutes: Skrtel's unnecessary foul, Shaqiri's outstanding set play delivery, Bojan somehow ghosting behind Ojo. It was the 16th equalizer that Liverpool have conceded this season, and third consecutive match where Liverpool had gone 1-0 up only to see the opposition level matters, each equalizer coming 10-to-15 minutes after Liverpool's opener. The match prior to those three saw Liverpool go 2-0 up, only to lose 2-3.

But not today. Redemption for Ojo's marginal error on the equalizer, beating Shaqiri for pace down the left before an unbelievable left-footed cross to Sturridge, somehow winning a header in front of two Stoke center-backs with the keeper stuck on his goal-line.

Again, Liverpool couldn't quite push on, with few scares from Stoke, but few scares put to Stoke as well, with the match feeling like a late-season game between two teams who'd secured their league position. Changes were needed to win, but it was still surprising to see Liverpool remove Ojo on halftime, Liverpool having retaken the lead thanks to his wonderful run and assist.

Credit where due. It was the move which sealed the victory, Origi extending then cementing Liverpool's win within 20 minutes. Another Liverpool set play, this time a corner, taken short. Another ideal cross, from Milner, to Origi from close range, a Liverpool striker again eluding Stoke's first-choice center-backs. 15 minutes later, the Belgian on a breakaway: an attempted cross to Sturridge from outside the box finding the back of the net instead.

As against Southampton in the League Cup and Villa in the league – when it rains, it pours. And Origi even missed a chance as good as his opener in between the goals, unable to direct his 61st minute header from Moreno's cross on-target.

I guess starting, and scoring, at Dortmund was good for his confidence.

It'd have been fun had Liverpool gone for broke, gone for, say, six goals to match the drubbing Liverpool suffered a year ago, but that they didn't was more than understandable. 4-1 up, 25 minutes to play, Dortmund on Thursday. Just kill the game. Which Liverpool assuredly did. First Lallana for Firmino, then Lucas for Allen, making sure that an exasperated Stoke had no time or space to find a consolation as Liverpool packed the midfield.

Last Thursday, Liverpool didn't allow a shot after the 59th minute, an amazing defensive performance to deny a threatening Dortmund any space in the final third. Today, Liverpool allowed a single shot after the 66th minute, a speculative effort from Crouch in injury time, steadily seeing out a dead match against dead opposition.

They were very different end stages to the match, against very different opposition. But Liverpool were defensively secure and able to take every breath of air out of the match in both. That's impressive.

This is the first time Liverpool have scored two goals from inside the six-yard box in the same match this season. It's just the second time that Liverpool have scored two headers in the same match (6-0 at Villa) or two goals from outside the box (also 6-0 at Villa). It's just the second time that Liverpool have scored two set play goals in the same match (6-0 at Villa; are you sensing a trend?).

But this wasn't facing a supremely terrible Aston Villa. Liverpool were up against opposition which sat two points and one place ahead of them in the table. The last three meetings between these two sides all ended in an 0-1 away win. And Liverpool still won, emphatically.

We've thankfully seen some big scores and big margins of victory this season: 4-1 City, 6-1 Southampton, 6-0 Villa, even 5-4 Norwich. But this is the first time that Liverpool have done it at home, the first time they've scored four at Anfield since 4-1 against Swansea in December 2014. Which, incidentally, was the only times Liverpool scored four last season.

It's nice to go into the next home match on the back of this, even if it'll be a very different XI using very different XI against very different opposition. But we've also seen Liverpool become almost complacent after previous big scores and big wins, tons of goals followed by none, using up all those goals at once: 6-1 Southampton followed by 0-2 Newcastle, 5-4 Norwich followed by 0-1 Stoke, 6-0 Villa followed by 0-0 Augsburg. It should be hard to be complacent against Dortmund with a place in a European semi-final at stake.

This is a good step for building momentum and for building consistency, despite the aforementioned multiple changes. For building a squad, building a team. But it's only a small step.

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