Stoke City 1 Walters 44’
Liverpool 2 Coutinho 69’, Firmino 71’
The Britannia Stadium - excuse me, the bet365 Stadium - has been the stage for some less than pleasant memories for Liverpool supporters in recent history. It was, unforgettably, the venue for Steven Gerrard’s utterly dismal final match for the club: a 6-1 defeat that signalled the impending conclusion of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure as Liverpool’s manager. This afternoon’s fixture threatened to become a new page in that unhappy history book, but against expectations, Jürgen Klopp’s side pulled out an impressive comeback that kept alive the dream of Champions League football next season.
On their day, Adam Lallana, Sadio Mané, Philippe Coutinho, and Roberto Firmino are all players who can change a game in a flash, so the fact that Liverpool were unable to call on any of them to start the match meant the Reds would already be a half-step behind before the first whistle had even sounded. Though Coutinho and Firmino were able to make the bench, the starting XI featured a trio of Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan at the back, plus appearances for young Ben Woodburn and Trent Alexander-Arnold elsewhere in the makeshift formation.
With Divock Origi up front and James Milner back in a midfield role, it was a starting XI that at least offered some promise against a Stoke City side that, sensing vulnerability, was determined to press Liverpool hard from the opening whistle. In truth, the first half was a less-than-enthralling affair. The visitors were clearly hesitant to play at their usual tempo, and Mark Hughes’ starters, for all their aggression and effort, managed to create lots of uncertainty for the experimental Liverpool back line without actually crafting many clear-cut opportunities of note.
Xherdan Shaqiri had the ball in the Liverpool net after barely two minutes, but the former Bayern Munich man was adjudged to have been in an offside position when the ball was lifted tantalizingly over the Reds’ back line from Stoke’s left. The early tone was set, however, and Shaqiri, Saido Berahino, Marko Arnautovic, and the ageless Jonathan Walters continued to take turns harrying Lovren, Matip and Klavan. Liverpool, for their part, opted to give Origi a number of high balls over the top to chase in the early phases, a strategy which was always going to have an air of futility about it against Stoke.
Having weathered an early storm of crosses into the box, the visitors began to settle into a bit of a rhythm and even made some threatening forays towards the Stoke goal. Alexander-Arnold, who had his hands full against Arnautovic, did little to dispel the suspicion that he will be a lethal crosser of the ball in due course. Woodburn elevated pulse rates slightly in the 25th minute when he dispossessed not one but two Stoke players en route towards the hosts’ penalty box, before a trio of defenders surrounded the teenager, who was looking around desperately for support.
Despite a bit of a setback for Stoke when Charlie Adam had to come on for an injured Joe Allen, there was still a lingering sense that Liverpool were just one defensive error away from conceding. Just after the half-hour mark, Lovren made a hash of a ball from over the top, allowing Arnautovic a clear sight of goal, but Austrian could only direct his half-volley into the side netting as the Reds supporters breathed a sigh of relief.
That relief would not persist for long. Just minutes before half-time, Erik Pieters appeared to have taken out Ben Woodburn from behind in the boxer after Clyne had found the youngster in a central position. While the penalty was still being appealed for by a livid Klopp, Stoke worked the ball quickly down the right to Shaqiri. Klavan committed himself to the tackle and missed, allowing Shaqiri acres of room to pick out Walters in the middle, who nodded home from close range. A truly dispiriting sequence of events for Klopp’s side.
At the half, Coutinho and Firmino were brought on for Woodburn and Alexander-Arnold. The manager was quick to stress after the match that this was not a reaction to the youngsters’ performances. Rather, bringing on the Brazilians was part of the plan entering the match. Coutinho was revealed to be still dealing with illness during the week - to the point where he lost 3 kilograms in 3 days, while Firmino had told the manager he was feeling “done” after the prior match. Given the state of affairs, Klopp decided to bring both on a little bit sooner than planned.
The difference in Liverpool’s play was easily discernible. After Mignolet denied an early Charlie Adam shot, the two Brazilians took turns menacing Lee Grant’s goal and forcing him into action. From that point on, the visitors always looked the more likely to score, and Stoke were now on the back foot. Lovren, of all people, managed to trouble the woodwork with a header, but the equalizer continued to elude Liverpool.
Klopp’s side would have to keep knocking on the door, but the answer came, eventually, just before 70 minutes. Daniel Sturridge, who had just come on for Origi, showed great vision to find Firmino lurking on the left of the Stoke box. With defenders coming back in numbers, the ball pinged around several times before falling to an unmarked Coutinho, who had just about enough time to direct the ball past an outstretched Grant. Level footing was achieved.
Less than two minutes later, that footing was improved upon. Just as Stoke were starting to threaten again, Liverpool took route one to goal. Matip laid the ball off into the path of Wijnaldum, who spotted Firmino getting ready to slip behind the Stoke central defenders. The timing of the pass was perfect, but with the ball bouncing high it still took a perfectly executed finish from Firmino to put Liverpool in front. The hosts were shell-shocked.
In the ensuing furore, Stoke had a golden opportunity to restore parity. A lapse in concentration allowed Arnautovic to break free from his defender and charge down the left. In the middle, Berahino was lurking, and when the ball found him, an equalizer seemed all but certain - except, that is, to Mignolet, who delivered a reaction save that defied belief. Now, Stoke were truly deflated. Despite the memory of the late capitulation against Bournemouth, Liverpool were able to see this one through and secure three very vital points on the road.