Liverpool 1: Johnson 85'
Stoke City 0
Brendan Rodgers made good on his assertions that Steven Gerrard couldn't start three matches in a week by dropping the captain to the bench in favor of Philippe Coutinho, with Lucas, Joe Allen, and Jordan Henderson retaining their places midweek along with Rickie Lambert and Raheem Sterling. Jose Enrique came back into the side at left-back, with Glen Johnson moving right and Kolo Toure keeping his spot in central defense alongside Martin Skrtel. Lambert, on his third start of the week, was the only striker in the squad, with Fabio Borini dropping out entirely.
That was cause for concern in a dismal first half for Liverpool's attack, as there was little link-up taking place between the front four. Lambert lined up centrally with Sterling left, Coutinho central, and Henderson right, but efforts to piece together anything of substance in the final third fell desperately short. Defensively it was far better, however, as Lucas was up for the occasion and, along with Toure, helped produce one of the more stable defensive halves Liverpool have played all season.
The second half was far more open, with both sides looking more dangerous going forward. Stoke had two chances in quick succession around the hour mark, first through Mame Biram Diouf, who saw his shot from a tight angle saved by Simon Mignolet, and minutes later from Bojan, who exploited the space left by Johnson and nutmegged Lucas before blasting an effort past Simon Mignolet and off the post on the near side.
Stoke's surge seemed to jolt Liverpool awake, as they created a raft of chances shortly after. Sterling dragged a left-footed shot wide after bundling through the Stoke defense, Lucas shot straight at Asmir Begovic after a five-on-three break, and Lambert scuffed a tame effort at the Bosnian before the pick of the lot was blasted over by Joe Allen. A neat move started by the midfielder went through Sterling, Coutinho, and finally Sterling again before his cross found Allen, who couldn't stay on top of the half-volley and skied it.
Sterling saved Liverpool at the other end from another Diouf chance, clearing a sure goal off the line after the hosts failed to deal with a Stoke corner. Gerrard's introduction for Lucas brought more space in front of the Liverpool defense and more than a little concern about a gut-punch winner for the visitors, but it was Brendan Rodgers' side who found the winner in the 85th minute.
Jordan Henderson's cross found Lambert on the far side, and the striker's header got over Begovic but bounced back off the crossbar. The ball fell into space with Begovic still on the ground, and an onrushing Glen Johnson beat two defenders and the goalkeeper to the ball to head in what would prove to be the winner.
Rodgers responded by cancelling a planned substitution to bring Adam Lallana on, instead opting for Dejan Lovren, and with seven minutes of added time, Stoke piled on the pressure. Their best chance came in a flash, with Bojan hitting a perfect volley from the edge of the area. Mignolet was equal to the task, thankfully, tipping it over with one of the better reaction saves you'll see. Hearts in mouths, but three points in the end.
After going so long without, a win will most definitely do. No complaints about the result or the manner in which the winning goal arrived. Three points were absolutely necessary today, and Liverpool delivered. They didn't address all of the concerns from their miserable form from the last few months, but getting the result in spite of that--and, at times, themselves--was critical.
Improvements were evident both collectively and individually, with the defense leading the way in the first half and a Lucas-Joe Allen midfield partnership excelling. Kolo Toure was terrific for most of the match alongside Martin Skrtel, while Lucas barely put a foot wrong before coming off. The same could be said for Allen, who did nearly everything asked of him other than convert his chance in front of goal. Both he and Lucas made strong cases for continued inclusion in the immediate future, as did Toure.
Things got better up top as the match wore on, with Sterling and Coutinho taking advantage of more space in the second half and Lambert holding play up well after a poor start. Tired legs limited the 32-year-old's movement, but he provided a good outlet over the course of the final 45 minutes and nearly got the winner. It was strange that Glen Johnson was the one who got it, as it was his first in two years and demanded the type of commitment from him that has been absent for much of the season. The rest of his performance was largely below average, while Jose Enrique was slightly better on the left.
Rodgers' substitutes didn't do much for Liverpool tactically, and a case could be made that the introduction of both Steven Gerrard and Dejan Lovren left them more vulnerable despite the fact that both were serviceable after coming on. Lucas had tired but was still holding the midfield together, and the captain's introduction saw Rodgers abandon any pretense of midfield control. Bringing on Lovren signaled a complete collapse of forward movement, a batten down the hatches move that meant Liverpool had to hold on and hope for the best.
And, for once in the past few weeks, they got it. Onto to Leicester City, and hopefully onto a strong finish to 2014.