Liverpool’s Champions League qualification hopes received a massive boost after winning three points during an enthralling encounter at the Britannia. Having topped the table at Christmas, the Reds found themselves in 6th position before the match, due to Tottenham and Everton winning on Saturday. Stoke were 12th beforehand and just four points above the relegation zone, but a win would have seen them climb up into the top half of the table. Liverpool’s last game in the league saw them win 2-0 at home to Hull, while Stoke were agonisingly held at home by Everton, who scored a last minute equaliser from the spot.
Stoke started the game by winning a flurry of set pieces, an area where they were clinical under Tony Pulis’ management. However none of them fashioned any opportunities for the home team, and Liverpool eventually managed to get into the game with a period of possession. It was the away side’s first venture into Stoke’s half that produced the opening goal. Sterling received the ball down the right hand side, and his poorly struck cutback managed to find Cissokho. The left back’s speculative shot was going well wide, but Shawcross was unfortunate to deflect the ball past his own keeper.
This goal sparked Liverpool into life, without fashioning too many great opportunities. Gerrard’s free kick failed to create any danger, Johnson failed to connect with a shot just outside the area, and Coutinho’s through ball to Henderson was too heavy. Stoke came back into the game, winning a few more corners which were dealt with reasonably well by Skrtel and Toure, while Mignolet was called into action to hold onto a dangerous looking free kick. Suarez spurned two decent opportunities half an hour into the game. Coutinho’s lofted pass into the box found Suarez, but with pressure from Butland, Liverpool’s top scorer failed to connect with the header. A minute later, a free kick outside the area was taken by the Uruguayan, but it was poor compared to many of his efforts this season, flying wide of the post. Suarez finally scored two minutes afterwards, after Stoke’s defence fell asleep. Skrtel’s long clearance reached Marc Wilson, but his header back to Butland was poor. Suarez chased the ball down and managed to beat Shawcross to calmly place it into the back of the net and double the scoreline.
Liverpool had a chance to make it 3-0 after Stoke’s defence fell asleep with the ball again. Sterling pressed well to win the ball back, but couldn’t produce a cross good enough for Suarez or Coutinho to capitalise on. Out of nowhere, Stoke clawed themselves back into the game. Arnautovic’s cross from the left hand side found Crouch in the box, who was always going to win the aerial battle with Toure. Crouch made no mistake in flicking his header past Mignolet to score Stoke’s first headed goal of the season. Crouch spent three years at Liverpool, and decided against celebrating his former club, who handed him his Champions League debut. Coutinho nearly restored Liverpool’s two goal cushion shortly after, but Butland, making his first start in the Premier League, did excellently well to prevent the Brazilian, while Shawcross reacted first to clear the ball. On the brink of half time, Liverpool saw their lead collapse, when Charlie Adam, another former Liverpool player, produced a fine left footed strike past Mignolet, capitalising on Henderson’s poor attempted pass to Gerrard.
Stoke were the dominant team at the end of the first half, and they carried on this momentum to the beginning of the second half, enjoying a rare period of possession. However as with the first half, Liverpool’s first attacking move ended in a goal. Sterling ran the ball into the box, and fell under the challenge of Wilson, the defender responsible for the second goal. Gerrard stepped up for the penalty, and coolly sent Butland the wrong way. A series of free kicks failed to produce a fourth goal for Liverpool, seemingly lacking the aerial threat the injured Sakho brings to the team. Despite this, Skrtel and Toure did reasonably well to deal with the barrage of crosses which Arnautovic and Walters sent into the box. The introduction of Sturridge for Coutinho produced a goal shortly after, as he continued his excellent partnership with Suarez. The England striker held the ball up well, and played a well timed through ball, which Suarez placed past Butland.
A minute later, Suarez had a great chance to complete his hat trick, but opted to try and repay the favour to Sturridge, trying to play him through on the right hand side. However his pass was too heavy and the ball went out of play. Stoke continued to surge forward, and Mignolet came under massive pressure in the Liverpool goal. Adam’s ball into the box found the head of Toure, who’s looped header forced Mignolet to tip it over. The corner was punched away by the Belgian, and Arnautovic failed to connect with the volley outside of the area. Walters also came close, but Mignolet did well to push the Stoke player’s header away, diving to his left hand side. A minute later, Mignolet went from hero to villain, after he somehow allowed Walters weak shot to squirm through his legs. This mistake was the latest in a series of errors from the summer signing who impressed so often in his first months at the club. Errors against City, Chelsea and now Stoke will give Rodgers some cause for concern, especially when the title race comes down to the wire.
Crouch nearly managed an equaliser, but his header failed to hit the target. Stoke had poured so many forward, neglecting the two Liverpool strikers at the other end. Suarez crossed into Sturridge, who eventually managed to put the game beyond doubt. His first time shot was clawed away by Butland, but the striker expertly kept the ball in play, juggling it using his chest and head, before rifling it into the back of the net. Crouch came close to score the 9th goal of an end to end game, but hit the post and Skrtel cleared any danger. Moments later, Suarez had a chance for a hat trick, although his shot was from a tough angle, and he’d probably have been better off passing to Sturridge, who was waiting in the box. The last big moment of the game came when Gerrard headed back to his own keeper, almost a rare own goal for the captain, but luckily for him, Mignolet was aware of the danger. The final whistle went, and confirmed Liverpool’s return to the top four. This was one of the most entertaining games of an unpredictable season, and victory felt massive for Liverpool fans, and will give further hope that this is the season where the Reds return to Europe’s most prestigious competition, the Champions League.