Liverpool’s two Brazilians – Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho – were the Liverpool heroes today, in a game of two very distinct halves.
The first period saw a much-changed team start slowly, Stoke clearly buoyed by seeing a team-sheet missing about half of the Red’s first-choice eleven. Marko Arnautovic looked lively, although he lacks end product, whilst Jonathon Walters always seems to score whenever he plays against Liverpool, as an Everton fan.
Within three minutes, Stoke though they had taken the lead, but Xherdan Shaqiri’s excellent finish was ruled out for offside. The decision was marginal, but correct. Liverpool’s defence was fortunate, and static.
The first fifteen minutes was all Stoke, but then Liverpool crept back into it. Divock Origi smashed a wild shot closer to the corner flag than the goal, whilst at the other end, Shaqiri continued to cause problems on the break.
After about half an hour, a long-ball caught Dejan Lovren out, and he could only loop the ball up in the air. It fell kindly to Marko Arnautovic, but the Austrian could only fire the ball into the side-netting.
The majority of the first period had been dull, with little quality, but then in the final minutes, it began to liven up. Ben Woodburn went down just inside the area under challenge from Erik Pieters – it was worthy at the very least of a ‘seen them given’ categorisation, but Mike Dean had no interest. Jurgen Klopp on the sideline was furious, but it was going to get worse.
Immediately, Stoke went in front, when Shaqiri got to the by-line by skipping past Ragnar Klavan, and crossed for Walters to score at the near post. Not one of Liverpool’s three centre backs got anywhere close, with many players still aggrieved at the lack of a decision at the other end.
Half-time came and Jurgen Klopp decided drastic action was needed, with Liverpool having barely mustered an attacking threat. On came Coutinho and Firmino; the game changed in an instant. Ben Woodburn and Trent Alexadner-Arnold were unlucky to be replaced, but the change simply had to be made.
The impact was clear to see straight away, with considerably more intent from the away side, but it was Stoke who had the clearest chance. Charlie Adam saw the ball fall for him in the box, and Simon Mignolet made an unbelievable save. Adam looked certain to score.
That seemed to spark Liverpool into action again, and a period of intense pressure followed. Daniel Sturridge was introduced for Origi after 68 minutes, and that was the trigger.
It was Sturridge’s through-ball that started the move for the equaliser, which Coutinho expertly finished off into the bottom left corner, taking his tally to ten for the season. He now has three in a week.
Only two minutes later, Roberto Firmino, his compatriot, had given Liverpool the lead. Wijnaldum set him away with a ball over the top, and he smashed the ball into the net before Lee Grant could make a move.
Liverpool were much the better side in the second half, but still had time to hold on.
Saido Berahino, who is yet to score for Stoke, must wonder how he did not open his account today. Mignolet again made a spectacular block at the last second, scrambling across his goal to prevent the striker from scoring from inside the six-yard box when it looked for all the world like he would score.
After that scare, Stoke mustered very little as the game petered out. Shaqiri tried in vain for a penalty, but went down far too easily, and Liverpool had done enough.
Jurgen Klopp’s side now are nine points clear of Arsenal having played three games more, but have the favourable run-in. The Gunners face a trip to Crystal Palace on Monday night for a start.
This was a massive victory for the Reds: now they must go into the final six matches with confidence. This was must-win, and win they did.
Simon Mignolet, 9 – made two mind-boggling saves, including one from Charlie Adam when he shot from point-blank range; the Brazilian’s will get the headlines, but the Belgian was the real hero as he kept the Reds in the contest
Trent Alexander-Arnold, 7 – performed perfectly fine in the first half considering his age; unfortunate to be taken off but the changes were right and turned the game
Joel Matip, 8 – won some crucial headers and showed a strong display at the back
Dejan Lovren, 8 – also won his fair share of aerial duels, and showed plenty of experience to help defend the lead at the end
Ragnar Klavan, 7 – booked for a poor tackle and struggled to cope with Stoke, who clearly targeted him as a weakness; just about survived the afternoon
Nathaniel Clyne, 7 – struggled first half, but recovered well in the second; seems to enjoy the extra attacking freedom allowed by playing three centre backs
James Milner, 7 – played in his preferred midfield position due to injuries to begin with, but looked much better in the second half when moved back out to the left; steady if not spectacular as always
Emre Can, 7 – superb in the second period but very laboured in the first; made some vital tackles near the end
Gini Wijnaldum, 7 – held the ball up well at times, but also nearly assisted a goal for Charlie Adam, but for the aforementioned miraculous save by Mignolet; good but far from perfect
Divock Origi, 6 – hit one effort hopelessly wide and struggled against the physicality of Ryan Shawcross in particular; lucky not to be hooked sooner than 68 minutes
Ben Woodburn, 6 – lots of effort but he too looked physically unable to compete against a very strong and tough defence; showed his quality at times but more experienced options were needed at the break – he will get his chance again
Roberto Firmino (46th minute sub.), 8 – scored the winner and looked very sharp after initially being rested; the game changer along with his Brazilian team-mate and the ultimate match-winner
Philippe Couthino (46th minute sub.), 8 – back to normal following illness; his performance was even more impressive since he has not trained all week and was touch-and-go to play any part just this morning
Daniel Sturridge (68th minute sub.), 8 – looked as sharp as he has all season long and was the final piece in the puzzle; both goals came swiftly after his arrival on the field with just over twenty minutes to go and is surely in contention for a start next weekend
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