The contenders are beginning their final sprint towards the top four positions in the Premier League, and Liverpool Football Club can ill afford to drop any more points at this stage of the season. For that reason, that was an almost palpable gloom as hosts Stoke City secured a first half lead against a side featuring an odd mix of unfamiliar faces and an unfamiliar formation.
This season’s Liverpool have shown, however, that they are as capable of mounting a spirited comeback as they are of capitulating from an advantageous position, so it was just a question of which Liverpool supporters would see in the second half. Thankfully for the Red half of Merseyside, it was the former. If Liverpool do indeed qualify for next season’s Champions League, this match will undoubtedly represent a key milestone.
Asked to assess the match, manager Jürgen Klopp acknowledged that the recent spate of injuries, coupled with precious little time between matches, had forced Liverpool into a bit of a corner, tactically, and that the players’ lack of familiarity showed.
They were two completely different halves, obviously. We had to change the system; we couldn’t train it really. I don’t like it too much but the situation forced it. We couldn’t train it and that’s what everybody could see.
But defending was not a problem. I thought defending could have been more difficult, but that was not a problem. We didn’t defend like we usually do – we couldn’t play high pressure, so we had to stay a little bit deeper, but they didn’t create a lot of chances.
We had to fight. And we needed Simon Mignolet with two outstanding saves – the second one was one of the best I’ve ever seen, Save of the Day, Month, Year.
The turning point came with the start of the second half, when Ben Woodburn and Trent Alexander-Arnold - neither of whom had acquitted himself poorly, it must be said - were both withdrawn for Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. The introduction of the two Brazilians gave Liverpool a dimension of threat that was not there in the first half, so naturally the question was asked as to whether the duo might have played from the first whistle. Klopp’s response clarified that this was not an option:
It was not clear that Roberto and Phil would be ready for 45 minutes. Roberto, after the last game, a guy who usually never says anything about how he feels, said ‘I’m really done’. So he was now at a point where it was clear if we tried to bring him through 90 minutes it would cause us real problems.
Phil lost three kilos in the last three days. For most of us that would be good news! But for Phil and a professional football player, it is not as good. He came to the hotel this morning and said ‘I’m fine’. But we knew he would have a low energy level, full enough for 30 minutes.
The substitutions paid full dividends, as Coutinho and Firmino delivered the equalizer and match-winning goal respectively. On a day where a number of their rivals also secured three points, the comeback victory against an oftentimes troublesome Stoke side was immense, and this fact was not lost on the manager. Asked by a reporter whether the nine point advantage over Arsenal put Liverpool in a good position to achieve a top four spot, Klopp quickly put things back in perspective.
Unfortunately not, because they also have [three matches in hand]. Arsenal is a good side, so they can win three in a row, that’s no problem. We don’t think like this, we only think about our situation, and try to sort all the things we can, play as good as we can, and collect the points. But 63 points today is a wonderful number.
Indeed it is, and the march towards more points continues.