Sunday, 30 November 2014

Reds scrape Stoke win to end losing streak

Liverpool returned to winning ways with a narrow and nervy win at home to Stoke City on Saturday.

Glen Johnson’s brave headed effort in front of the Kop with five minutes left proved the difference, as Brendan Rodgers’ side recorded their first victory in all competitions since the end of October. It marked the culmination of a much-improved second half performance following an instantly forgettable first half from both sides.

Mark Hughes’ men, who had more possession and shots on target than their hosts, may have felt that they deserved a share of the spoils, but the Merseysiders ultimately wanted it more than the Potters as the need to arrest an alarming decline in the team’s fortunes proved critical heading into the potentially decisive festive fixtures.

The major team news was that Steven Gerrard was dropped to the bench exactly sixteen years to the day since his Liverpool debut.

Gerrard goads the abusive away fans while warming up
That bold decision by Brendan Rodgers, who late claimed to be unaware of the skipper’s landmark, was accompanied by a few other interesting selections, as Enrique, Toure and Lucas came in from the cold and were handed starting berths. Moreover, the in-form Rickie Lambert retained his place in the team as Balotelli and Sturridge remain injured.

Enrique and Toure were part of a back four that kept a clean sheet for only the third time this season, while Lucas put in a commanding performance in front of the defence that demonstrated his quality, which has gone largely untapped this season. He appears a far more accomplished defensive midfielder then Gerrard and even marauded forward on occasion, squandering one gilt-edged opportunity in the second half when he shot straight at the keeper when well-placed as Liverpool broke with a two-man advantage.

The first 45 minutes were absolutely dreadful. Not a single shot on target was recorded as Mignolet and Begovic barely got their gloves dirty, while both attacks struggled to get going. If anyone was going to produce anything for the Reds, it was either Coutinho or Sterling, who looked the liveliest, but overall it was another disjoined performance from a cagey Liverpool side clearly lacking in confidence.

Stoke, meanwhile, were happy to soak up the minimal pressure, knowing that, with their aerial prowess and Liverpool’s defensive weaknesses, all they needed to do to craft a decent goalscoring opportunity was win a set piece.

Thankfully, the second half was to the first what day is to night. Having almost certainly been on the receiving end of a stern word or two from Rodgers during the interval, Liverpool demonstrated far more determination, desire and urgency during the second period, possessing more of an attacking threat and doing enough to warrant the three points.

Captain for the day Jordan Henderson almost broke the deadlock six minutes after the restart, drilling a volleyed effort that many in the ground thought had breached the net just wide of goal. Stoke responded by going close on two occasions.

First, Mignolet diverted Diouf’s effort away with his feet after initially appearing caught in two minds as to whether or not to come off his line as the Senegalese striker latched on to Bojan’s pass and bore down on goal. Then, on the hour mark the former Barcelona player fired a threatening strike against the woodwork. Raheem Sterling immediately went up the other end and slotted a low left footed shot just wide of the far post as the players finally gave the supporters a spectacle to watch.

Sterling shot just wide
Encouragingly, Liverpool were playing much higher up the pitch and also producing some intricate passing movements that helped to unlock the visitors’ defence, Allen disappointingly shooting over the bar from six yards out following clever play by Coutinho and Sterling.

Their momentum was building and it only seemed a matter of time until the Reds took the lead; thankfully their pressure eventually told, although they had to suffer another fright a couple of minutes before going ahead. Stoke’s left wing corner wasn’t properly dealt with on the first time of asking by Liverpool, allowing Diouf to spin and volley goalwards from close range. Only a magnificent chested goalline clearance form Sterling denied the Potters’ number 18.

It wasn’t a moment of creative genius that prised open Stoke’s defence at the end of the day, but rather some much needed directness and determination. Gerrard swung in a cross to Lambert, whose looping header bounced back off the bar. Spotting the opportunity, Johnson reacted fastest and somehow managed to get his head to the ball, sending it into the net from a few yards out to score his first Premier League goal since December 2012.

It was a brilliant goal born simply of a greater desire to reach the ball than the Stoke defenders, one of whom inadvertently booted Johnson in the head, leaving the much-maligned England international bleeding.

Johnson put his head where it hurts to win the points for the hosts
The scars were a small price to pay for the precious points, though, which were eventually secured following seven minutes of injury time, in which Mignolet made an exceptional save, tipping Bojan’s tremendous volley over the bar to prevent a Stoke sucker-punch.

Scrapping a 1-0 win at home to Stoke City is certainly not where Liverpool want to be, or should be, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m just delighted that the Reds have finally won a match, however they went about doing it. It may have been ugly, but Kopites won’t be complaining if it’s the first step on the long road back to the level where Liverpool should be at.


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