A bogey fixture for years, away to Stoke has often been the stuff of nightmares save for a 2-1 win in the League Cup in 2011. Points have proven few and far between, as have the goals, but today that all fell by the wayside, with Liverpool winning a completely bonkers match by a 5-3 scoreline, exorcising whatever sort of Mesolithic voodoo their hosts had over them and, more crucially, keeping pace at the top end of the Premier League table on a weekend that's seen five of the other top seven win to this point.
Stoke City 3: Crouch 39', Adam 45', Walters 85'
Liverpool 5: Shawcross (og) 5', Suarez 32' 71', Gerrard (pen.) 51', Sturridge 87'
We got the lineup everyone expected, with Steven Gerrard coming back into the regular eleven, and Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure partnering in central defense with Daniel Agger out injured and, somewhat surprisingly, Mamadou Sakho completely omitted. Daniel Sturridge made the bench, however, and his inclusion would prove vital in the later stages of what proved to be one of the more memorable matches of the season.
It was Stoke-ball from the outset, no question about it, with miserable conditions and lumped clearances back and forth. Only Liverpool were the aggressors early, and their pressure produced an early goal through Aly Cissokho with an assist from Ryan Shawcross. A failed cross from Raheem Sterling fortunately found its way to Cissokho on the edge of the Stoke area, and the left-back lashed a volley back toward the center, and while it was destined for the corner flag, it took a huge deflection off Shawcross and past a helpless Butland to give Liverpool the early lead.
Stoke found their footing as the half progressed, gathering a ridiculous amount of set-pieces along the way, but Liverpool managed stable defending while continuing their surprisingly physical approach. Tables were again turned just after the half-hour mark, as a bouncing Skrtel clearance wreaked havoc at the other end, eventually allowing Luis Suarez to wriggle through Shawcross and Butland and put Liverpool 2-0 up.
Too early for cruise control, though, with sloppy marking from Skrtel and Toure leaving Peter Crouch free to head in Stoke's opener, and Charlie Adam rounding off a miserable finish to the half with a blistering drive past Simon Mignolet after careless play from Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard.
Thankfully the second half saw Liverpool take another two-goal lead; Raheem Sterling's fortuitous interception and break down the right in the 52nd minute led to a penalty (a soft one at that) that was calmly converted by Gerrard, and the return of Daniel Sturridge brought with it another wonderful link-up between the newly-fit England striker and Suarez, with the former playing in the latter via a lovely reverse ball into the area and the latter curling past Butland to make it 4-2.
Only it wasn't over, of course, as Jonathan Walters first forced Simon Mignolet into a wonderful save with a well-placed header and then brought Stoke within a goal a few minutes later, dancing through Toure and scuffing a left-footed shot through the Ivorian and Mignolet. Liverpool's response was almost immediate, and this time they killed the match off for good, again through Suarez and Sturridge. The Uruguayan turned provider, lofting a cross to the near post for Sturridge, and while his first effort was saved wonderfully by Butland, he showed excellent quality in controlling with his chest and head as he got back to his feet and in front of goal before before lashing in to finish the scoring.
Barely, though, as Peter Crouch hit the post and nearly headed past Mignolet for an own goal and just make it stop already okay thanks Anthony Taylor
That was about as ridiculous as football matches get, especially considering the build-up that had us all bracing for impact. Up 2-0 via farcical circumstances, level at 2-2- via goals from exiled former players, up 4-2 via a soft penalty and the league's best strike partnership, narrowly ahead 4-3 after calamitous defending, and finally comfortable again at 5-3 late with a terrific solo effort. There was no breathing today, only disorganized grunting and exasperated cursing.
Which leaves little room for organized analysis other than to say that giving up two-goal leads shouldn't really be a thing anymore, and neither should Brendan Rodgers' continued failures to square-peg Steven Gerrard into the round hole of Liverpool's midfield at any cost. Neither is a new phenomenon, as shambolic defending gifted all three Stoke goals, and while the nature of the Gerrard problem was new, the problem wasn't. It led to the worst of all three midfielders, with Gerrard at his Hollywood best and worst from deep, Lucas inept trying to push more forward, and Jordan Henderson getting caught in between and proving uncharacteristically sloppy.
But for such a silly match I'm not too sure we can have too many gripes; five goals, Daniel Sturridge back, another Luis Suarez brace, and what continues to look like movement forward from the squad even though they're less than fully fit and committing a number of errors (ones that seem fixable). These are the matches they need to be winning, and today they did just that.
Even if it was in the worst most awesome manner possible.