Another potential banana skin of a game has been navigated, and thankfully, a positive result has come out of it. Subplots aplenty, from Liverpool’s past players in Charlie Adam and Peter Crouch to how Liverpool have never won at the Britannia in the league before, Brendan Rodgers will be thanking his lucky stars that his side somehow went into the cauldron and go out with three points, moving back into 4th in the process.
Liverpool fans will be pleased with the return of Daniel Sturridge, and my did the Reds need him in the second-half. Having led through two arguably fortuitous goals from a deflected Aly Cissokho strike and Luis Suarez’s poached effort, Liverpool’s soft underbelly looked suspect again. Ironically enough, even though Stoke had countless corners in the game, their goals did not come from set-pieces at all. The first was for ex-Kop favourite Crouch, glancing a magnificently placed header into the corner Simon Mignolet could not reach, while Adam picked up the loose ball in midfield, drove forward and fired an unstoppable shot home. While the former did not celebrate, the latter was only too eager to show his glee at scoring against his old club.
Martin Skrtel looked particularly suspect in this game. Failing to deal with set-pieces properly, he also lost Crouch for Stoke’s first and hesitated in closing down Adam for Stoke’s equaliser. His form in the past month should not guarantee him a starting spot anymore, in fact, when Mamadou Sakho returns from injury, Toure should resume his right centre-back position while Sakho comes back in at left centre-back.
It was peculiar that Rodgers started with Steven Gerrard in the holding role while Lucas and Jordan Henderson played ahead of the skipper. Gerrard has looked uncomfortable in that role, and Rodgers should have reverted with Lucas back in the holding role when Stoke started seizing control of the game, especially when Crouch got their first. However, on his 650th appearance for the club, Gerrard made no mistake with the penalty for Liverpool’s third, his 21st successful spot-kick in his career.
Up top left and right of Suarez, it was mixed fortunes for Raheem Sterling and Philipp Coutinho. Whereas Sterling kept troubling Stoke’s back line with his direct runs and used his pace to good effect, Coutinho could not find his passing range and when given the opportunity, could not finish. The Brazilian looks likely to be the one dropped by Rodgers now to accommodate Sturridge, as his lack of finishing ability had been plastered over by Suarez’s goals.
With all of Liverpool’s problems in midfield and defence, it was heartening to see SAS combine to devastating effect already, the first time in six weeks since both lined up together. First it was Sturridge driving at the defence before creating space for Suarez and putting the ball on a plate as the Uruguayan hitman curled beyond Jack Butland. Then when Liverpool was pegged back to 4-3 and needing some sort of reprieve, Suarez returned the favour, floating a delightful ball towards Sturridge, who somehow did not score on his first attempt, but credit due for his improvised control before a cool, calmed finish under Butland.
Villa at Anfield
Rodgers will seek some home comforts again after arguably the most difficult away game of the season so far, and that’s saying something having already been to Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. Taking three points at a ground where only Norwich has won while Chelsea are amongst the teams that floundered, Rodgers will need to deal with his porous defence to stand any chance of sustaining some run of form before the Merseyside derby at January’s end.
How Liverpool ended against Stoke will probably be how Rodgers set them up against Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa side this Saturday at Anfield.
Suarez and Sturridge has to be reunited. Simply put, they have to play together as often as possible, as if Liverpool’s defence is not going to improve, they simply have to outscore their opponents, like they did tonight. Their movement and link-up play is unbelievable, and with Sterling in the best form of his young career so far, Liverpool will always look potent going forward, especially on the counter.
Behind them, Henderson will be deployed, as Rodgers likes to say, as a ‘false left-sided’ midfielder. Basically his main job is to cover either for the left-back, or drift infield to provide support in attack and for the central midfielders. With Gerrard getting more accustomed to his new holding role, having Lucas drop even deeper will only help Gerrard in his acclimatisation.
Glen Johnson really risks getting dropped, and I doubt any Liverpool fan will be surprised to see Martin Kelly come in to replace him, seeing how Johnson’s standard has dropped and stayed low for so long already.
Lambert’s men are in a poor run of form, and Liverpool have to take advantage of this. No other game will be as ‘easy’ as this one, especially at home, but like how last season’s fixture proved, complacency is easily the Reds’ biggest enemy.