Stoke City 0
Liverpool 1 Ibe 37'
Liverpool went into the first leg of the club's Capital One Cup semi-final against Stoke City under a cloud. 2016 started with a disheartening defeat against West Ham United, helping the East London outfit to their first league double over Merseyside's finest since the 1963-64 season. Essentially it wasn't a good way to mark the start of a new year. Inconsistency has plagued Liverpool in the Jürgen Klopp era to date.
Mamadou Sakho's injury resulted in a start for Kolo Touré alongside Dejan Lovren, while Adam Lallana and Joe Allen jumped from the bench to the starting line-up through rotational and tactical concerns. Jordon Ibe dropped to the bench but will surely start against Exeter City in the FA Cup on Friday. While Christian Benteke wasn't alone in producing a woeful performance against West Ham, Klopp looked for a more fluid approach that reaped dividends against Chelsea, Manchester City, and Southampton away from home.
Liverpool started the first half with a 4-3-3 formation that looked like an exceedingly good fit for the players on the field. The pressing, movement, combination play, verticality, and hunger. Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, and Adam Lallana looked bright and full of intent. Within five minutes, Coutinho danced into the area before being stopped, Roberto Firmino looked like he was played in, and Joe Allen had a chance that he headed into the arms of a grateful Jack Butland. A few minutes later, Lallana tested Stoke's goalkeeper with a swerving effort from distance. Stoke City didn't seem prepared for this version of Liverpool.
Coutinho and Firmino resumed their blossoming relationship on the field. The Brazilian attacking duo combined artfully against Manchester City and were making defending a difficult task. On 14 minutes, Coutinho was one-on-one with Ryan Shawcross but couldn't beat the Stoke stalwart. Three minutes later, Coutinho's hamstring went and so did Liverpool's verve for a spell. Jordon Ibe replaced Liverpool's talisman but Stoke grew in confidence in the absence of the away side's number ten. Dejan Lovren's hamstrings also went later on forcing James Milner into a return from injury.
The goal came on 37 minutes from a fine bit of direct attacking play. Lallana was released down the right who progressed to the byline and played the ball across the box that ended up at the feet of Jordon Ibe via a pass-cum-shot/world class pass from Joe Allen. Instant control and a fine left foot finish beyond in-form Jack Butland. Liverpool's players had the lead their first half showing largely merited and showed that the players are more than capable of rising when the occasion demands it. Consistently inconsistent?
Mark Hughes responded at half time by bringing on experienced forward Jon Walters for midfielder Geoff Cameron in a show of attacking intent to rescue the game for his side. The central defensive pairing of Lucas Leiva (moved back after Lovren's hamstrings couldn't hack it on a Tuesday night at Stoke) and Kolo Touré needed to hold firm to preserve Liverpool's advantage. Scoring goals have been a problem for Liverpool, but it would be hard to question a 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium.
The second half was relatively open with Stoke pushing for an equaliser and Liverpool finding spaces on the flanks in response. Roberto Firmino fashioned some shooting chances with his quick and tricky feet, none of which really threatened Butland. Liverpool sat deeper in the second half facing a home side that had plenty of the ball, but Stoke were desperately pushing as if there was one leg as opposed to two in this semi-final.
At the death. Deep into injury time. The last attack of the game. Jon Walters was through on goal with Nathaniel Clyne haring back to close down space after Peter Crouch headed the ball on. The angle wasn't easy, but Walters had to shoot across Mignolet to score. Walters shot wide and victory belonged to Liverpool. The final whistle signalled half-time in this tie, but Liverpool's players made their manager proud.
The sight of our Kolo holding his hamstring made it three hamstring injuries* in one match underling the need for Liverpool to make the necessary alterations to keep players fit. Jon Flanagan is still making his way back to fitness so if one includes Cafu's favourite fullback and the
three two injuries suffered at the Britannia Stadium, Liverpool have 12 11 players out injured. Ridiculous.
There were some outstanding performances (take a bow Allen and Kolo) in a match where Liverpool needed to respond. There will need to be a fair bit amount of rotation for Friday's FA Cup trip to Exeter, but Liverpool have secured an important advantage to take into the second leg at the end of the month. Liverpool have players in the squad who are good enough but might need time under Klopp to find the consistency and confidence required to excel. Nonetheless it was a good day.
* - Kolo had cramp apparently, bless his heart.