08 April 2017

Liverpool 2-1 Stoke

Walters 44'
Coutinho 70'
Firmino 72'

That probably should not have happened.

Well, let me rephrase. I did not expect that to happen. That's more accurate.

The first 45 minutes could not have gone worse. An unexpected XI and formation with Coutinho, Firmino, and Sturridge only fit enough for the bench. A first league start for Ben Woodburn, a second league start for Trent Alexander-Arnold. The first time Milner's played in midfield this season. And, most surprisingly, a 3-5-1-1 formation.

And Liverpool very much looked a makeshift side in an unfamiliar set-up.

Stoke dominated early on. Absolutely dominated, with Liverpool almost wholly unable to possess the ball in the opposition half and only keeping the score at 0-0 because the linesman rightfully ruled Shaqiri offside with the ball in the net and because of Marko Arnautovic's errant finishing. But really, it was just a terrible, terrible game, from both sides, and all too in keeping with previous Liverpool poor performances away from home against these types of teams.

To be slightly fairer, Liverpool actually got better as the half went on, starting around the half-hour mark. Which isn't entirely unexpected given personnel and formation. Liverpool actually had more of the ball and Ben Woodburn actually got on the ball. But then, because of course, shenanigans. Mike Dean ignoring a transparently clear penalty on Woodburn when Pieters dove in, immediately followed up by Jon Walters' seventh goal against Liverpool in 13 games, an easy header after a ball over the top to Shaqiri completely set Clyne and Klavan on fire. With barely more than a minute left in the first half.

Panic, panic, the sky is falling, etc. Desperate reaction needed. Desperate reaction taken, with previously-ill Coutinho and needing-rest Firmino replacing Alexander-Arnold and Woodburn. Still three at the back, but 3-4-3 rather than 3-5-1-1, and actual experienced outstanding attackers on the pitch. Milner back in the position he belongs in, Clyne back on the side he belongs on.

But it was almost all over before it started, and Liverpool have Liverpool's man of the match to thank for it. Seven minutes after the restart and Liverpool are unsurprisingly a bit more coherent than in the first half, but haven't truly kicked into gear. And Stoke have a corner. And Liverpool's suicidal tendencies pop up at the least helpful time, with Wijnaldum somehow heading an attempted clearance back towards his own goal. Towards four Stoke players with none from Liverpool in the immediate vicinity. Directly to the feet of Charlie Adam four yards out. And Simon Mignolet denied him.

From there, the turning of the screws. Origi's curler just wide. Sharp efforts from Firmino and Coutinho saved by Grant. A bullet header from Lovren off the bar. But no goal, not for lack of trying.

No goal until Daniel Sturridge came on. Daniel Sturridge came in the 68th minute. Liverpool were level in the 70th minute. Liverpool were ahead by the 72nd minute.

First, Can's chipped cross in the direction of Sturridge, parried by Whelan but directly to Coutinho, arrowed into the far corner. Then Wijnaldum's long pass over the top to a barely onside Firmino, absolutely Suarezed into the net from 20 yards out on the half volley. And that's the highest compliment that I can pay that strike. I honestly thought it was Luis Suarez for a half-second.

Sturridge may not have been directly involved in either goal, but it was his clever movement which helped create space for both, in sadly direct contrast to Origi's lack of.

But, as is Liverpool's wont, Liverpool almost immediately threw it all away, in a matter of moments. Stoke's first attack after conceding the second, Arnautovic in behind Clyne and a delicious low cross finding Berahino in behind Klavan, an apparent tap-in from approximately four yards out. And Simon Mignolet denied him. And that's why Simon Mignolet's the man of the match.

And no matter how frequently Liverpool have tortured and tormented us late in close matches this season, that was about it. For how terrified we all were, there weren't any true moments of terror after Mignolet denied Berahino's clear-cut chance. Liverpool denied Stoke space in their defensive half, tried to counter into Stoke's half, and controlled proceedings and even possession in the final stages. As a good, competent side should.

Desperate reaction achieved. And, in truth, despite the overwhelming euphoria (ps, eat that Stoke), the bare minimum achieved. Keeping necessary pace with the rest of the top four contenders. Beating a side that hadn't won against a top-seven team since October 2015. Doing what you're supposed to and need to do. Doing what we haven't seen enough of this season.

Today was Liverpool's weaknesses and strengths all laid bare. Injuries and squad depth remaining the biggest detriment. An inability to change formation or tactics successfully when key players aren't available. Defensive errors, goals conceded.

But firepower when needed. A reaction when needed. A win when needed. The brilliance of Coutinho and Firmino. The tantalizing potential of a potentially fit Sturridge. Simon Mignolet's actually a goalkeeper sometimes. Goal-scoring, game changing substitutes. Liverpool's 18th point gained from a losing position, the best in the league, but also up against a record where Liverpool's dropped 15 points from winning positions.

It was a manic, schizophrenic match. It's been a manic, schizophrenic season. And there are six games left.

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