Before their match against Liverpool, Stoke City manager Mark Hughes stated that a spot in Europe for next season was something the club "aspire to and want to achieve." They did not put themselves in a good position to do so in their prior league appearance, surrendering a two-goal advantage against Swansea, and with matches against Tottenham and Manchester City around the corner, this contest against a much-changed Liverpool side would represent a vital opportunity.
Jürgen Klopp's lineup, perhaps unsurprisingly, featured a number of less-than familiar faces. A potentially epic duel at Anfield against Borussia Dortmund awaits mid-week, and Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho, Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren were all asked to conserve their energies. In their stead came Sheyi Ojo, Kevin Stewart, Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel, who will have wanted to erase the memory of his introduction at St. Mary's.
It is a testament to Mark Hughes' transformative powers that observers can speak meaningfully about the threat posed by a number of highly-skilled, technical players in Stoke's side without a trace of irony. Despite Marko Arnautovic's absence, Stoke still feature a number of tricky customers in Bojan, Afellay and Shaqiri. And as a further indication of how much Stoke have evolved in recent history, the visitors spent significant stretches of the first half in comfortable, if somewhat ineffective, possession.
Liverpool were first to strike, however, during a back-and-forth series of opening exchanges. Stoke needlessly conceded a free kick on the left, and James Milner took the opportunity to relay the ball to Alberto Moreno, who lashed home an unstoppable missile through traffic to earn Liverpool an early lead and secure himself a knowing nod from John Arne Riise.
This was never going to be a match with just the one goal in it, and both sides had opportunities soon after Moreno's opener. From a defensive posture, Daniel Sturridge was able to unleash Roberto Firmino in the proverbial acres of space, but the return pass from the Brazilian was poor and failed to elude the scrambling Stoke defenders.
In the 22nd minute, Liverpool conceded from a set piece for what must certainly be the nine millionth time this season. A free kick taken by Shaqiri was floated tantalizingly into the mob lurking in front of the Liverpool goal, and when Ojo failed to track his man with a great deal of conviction, Bojan, of all people, found himself in space to head past Simon Mignolet. Game on.
Liverpool did not wait long to respond. Ojo this time assumed the role of provider, making amends for his less-than-diligent marking on the Stoke goal. Receiving the ball on the left, the teenager danced around Shaqiri before placing an inch-perfect cross onto a platter for Daniel Sturridge's forehead. One wonders whether Jordon Ibe's chance has come and gone.
Stoke would sense that the recipe for their first goal was something that could be replicated against Skrtel and Toure, and they pushed hard to create a similar opportunity. While there were a handful more heart-in-mouth moments from set plays for Liverpool supporters, Peter Crouch & Co. were never quite able to find the right mix of ingredients before the first half came to a close.
Before the restart, Divock Origi was summoned to replace Ojo, and the introduction of the young Belgian paid almost immediate dividends. From a short corner, Milner was able to find a criminally unmarked Origi, who built upon the good work done at Dortmund to extend Liverpool's lead. Unlike in the aftermath of Liverpool's opener, Stoke now struggled to find their rhythm, and Origi's presence and his link-up play with Sturridge were presenting clear difficulties for the visitors' back four. Following the introduction of Adam Lallana for Firmino, Origi was able to double his account, this time drifting in from the left and directing a wicked cross/shot past Jakob Haugaard.
This was no 6-1 punishment, but Stoke were convincingly beaten by this point. There was even time for Lucas Leiva to make an appearance, coming on for Joe Allen, who put in yet another heroically understated performance. By the time the referee brought things to a close, Stoke were chasing ghosts. Mission accomplished for Klopp and his crew, who were able to assert dominance at home against a tricky side while saving some fuel in the tank for mid-week. A more potent and dangerous opponent awaits, and Liverpool will hope that the comforts of home can persist.