Monday, 13 January 2014

Goals galore as SAS reunite to fire Reds to thrilling Stoke win

There’s never a dull moment following Liverpool FC.

With their attack in red hot form and their defence conversely performing decidedly worryingly, Kopites are always guaranteed goals when they watch their team play, often from the edge of their seats or behind their sofas for the entire 90 minutes.

Yesterday’s 5-3 victory at the Britannia Stadium provided the perfect case study. A combination of exhilarating forward play and lax defending led to a pulsating end-to-end match, which was nail-biting and marvellously entertaining in equal measure.

It all could have been so different, however. As Brendan Rodgers mentioned after the match, for 39 minutes Liverpool put in the perfect away performance. After taking the lead only five minutes in, they took advantage of poor defending to add a second on the half hour mark and looked confidently in control.

However, hitting the self-destruct button with some woeful defending just before the break meant the Merseysiders had to win the match all over again in the second half. With the help of some favourable refereeing decisions, Liverpool eventually emerged victorious from the eight-goal thriller, although they shredded their supporters’ nerves in the process.

It made a pleasant change to being bored to tears, which is what often happens when Liverpool play at the Britannia Stadium, as Stoke are notorious for breaking up the game and making it difficult for superior opposition to play the expansive brand of football they enjoy, often turning the match into an unappealing spectacle as a result.

Prior to yesterday, Liverpool hadn’t scored more than once in a League game at Stoke since March 1982. Breaking the deadlock early on helped end that hoodoo. Aly Cissokho’s optimistic volley from range took a wicked and decisive deflection off Shawcross, which wrong-footed Butland to find the back of the net.

Some haphazard goalkeeping from Mignolet then nearly gave Whelan an opportunity to equalise, as the hosts asserted pressure through a series of corners from former Liverpool midfielder Charlie Adam.

It turned out to be a collection of calamitous defensive errors from Stoke, however, that led to the next goal being scored. Mignolet’s long punt forward caused confusion in a Stoke defence clearly terrified by the very presence of Luis Suarez, who exploited embarrassingly bad defending from Wilson and Shawcross to nip in and convert past Butland.

Unfortunately, Liverpool’s backline weren’t performing much better than their counterparts, and Stoke’s contingent of ex-Reds took advantage to draw the Potters level before the break.

First, Peter Crouch, who claimed an FA Cup winner’s medal during his three-year spell on Merseyside, beat Toure too easily, glancing Arnautovic’s header beyond Mignolet and into the net. Then, after Coutinho had squandered a great chance to immediately restore the Reds’ two-goal lead by firing straight at Butland, Stoke frustratingly equalised on the stroke of half time.

Loose play at the back forced Mignolet to make a hurried clearance, which gave possession back to Stoke and, eventually, a mix-up between Henderson and Gerrard allowed Adam, who arguably failed to live up to his potential while at Anfield, to drill an excellent effort into the corner of the net.
Cissokho and Hendo celebrate the opener

Suarez is as incredible as the Hulk himself

Crouch is lethal in the air

Adam's strike was impressive
In previous seasons, Stoke’s goals before the break would have taken the wind out of Liverpool’s figurative sails and the Potters would probably have gone on to claim victory. This season, however, the Reds are more resilient and believe, with good reason, that they can score one more goal than their opponents, regardless of how many goals they leak at the back.

Moreover, it made a pleasant change to benefit from, rather than suffer as a result of, questionable refereeing decisions. Referee Anthony Taylor failed to spot Sterling handling Wilson’s clearance and then dubiously pointed to the spot when the 19-year old went down under the Republic of Ireland defender’s innocuous challenge.

It was by no means as theatrical as Manchester United’s Young and Januzaj or Chelsea’s Oscar and Ramires. However, it was a very soft penalty that would have angered us had we conceded it, although undeniably Wilson did at least make some contact with Sterling.

Nevertheless, Steven Gerrard, who had unusually spent the majority of the match sitting as the deepest lying midfielder in front of the two centre backs, stepped up to calmly slot home his 34th successful spot kick for the club.

On 66 minutes, the SAS were reunited as Sturridge replaced Philippe Coutinho to complete his comeback from an ankle injury. He made an instant impact. The number 15 spearheaded a swift counter attack and set up his strike partner. Suarez made no mistake as he superbly curled into the bottom corner.

It was the Uruguayan’s 22nd goal in only 16 League games, which is only one fewer than he managed in 33 matches in 2012/2013.

Liverpool don’t like making things easy for themselves, though, and, after Mignolet made a decent save to push away Walters’ close-range header, the Belgian stopper allowed the boyhood Everton supporter’s shot to beat him and find the back of the net, when he really should have comfortably dealt with the fairly weak strike.

At that point, many anticipated a nervy final few minutes as Liverpool retreated into their shell and held on for dear life to their fragile one-goal lead. That’s just not Brendan Rodgers’ style, though, and thrillingly Sturridge added a fifth three minutes before the end of normal time to finally put Stoke to the sword.

Suarez’s cross found Sturridge, whose initial effort was well saved by Butland. The England international persevered admirably, however, and turned the ball over the line from close range.

Gerrard kept his cool from the spot

Suarez curled in his second

We've missed Sturridge's stupid dance
There was still time for Crouch to head against the woodwork, Suarez to see a shot stopped by Butland and Mignolet to make a decent save to prevent Gerrard scoring what would have been a bizarre own goal from a Stoke corner.

Thankfully, though, Liverpool secured the three points that took them back into the top four.

Encouragingly, this was the sixth time Liverpool have scored four or more goals in a League game this season, which is an impressive total only Man City’s attack can match. Worryingly, however, the Reds have now let in two or more goals in seven of their last eight away League games.

Do I really need to say where we need to improve? Those facts speak for themselves.

Next up, Aston Villa travel to Anfield next Saturday teatime. Let’s hope for a slightly less nerve-racking and far more comfortable home victory to prepare us nicely for the final League match of the month; the Merseyside derby.


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