In Rome right now, it’s 81°F and sunny while Kiev is only slightly cooler at a balmy 68°F. Football players are human too, we often forget. A Liverpool player quickly skimming their weather app while preparing for a gloomy lunchtime kick off in the north of England would’ve surely felt a twinge of longing. 49°F, cloudy with a chance of rain later on, legs probably a bit tired from certain midweek excursions, a quick check of what time the Chelsea match would be on later.
The dreaded early kickoff saw Jürgen Klopp and the Reds welcome Stoke City to Anfield on Saturday afternoon. A win was not essential but it would certainly have put minds at ease, removing one ball from the array the squad are juggling at the moment. With top four technically still a probabilistic certainty, a stumble across the league finish line would nevertheless make it mathematically possible for Liverpool to let it slip for a lurking Chelsea in fifth place to pounce.
A hobbling, threadbare squad with a date in Europe to consider set the expectation bar at a realistic level for Red fans on the day. Another five-goal performance like Anfield had been blessed with in midweek wasn’t necessary; 1-0 with no further injuries would suffice while a draw or a loss would only prolong the angst. Of course, we got a drab 0-0.
Klopp had done his best to gee up his side for the occasion, labelling the unsexy affair a “massive game” in the lead up. The German did his best to follow through on this sentiment in his team selection, with only Dejan Lovren, the injured Sadio Mané, Ironman James Milner and Andrew Robertson rested. Danny Ings got his second consecutive league start while Joe Gomez, Ragnar Klavan and Alberto Moreno also got the nod.
However even these minor changes that saw the team run out in an unfamiliar 3-4-3 formation left the weary Reds disjointed and lacking fluency. The normal runs made weren’t found, the passing movements fell apart, the counterpressing just undercooked.
The Potters, effectively relegated even if not definitively so, seized on the uncertainty. Galvanizing interim manager, Paul Lambert guessed correctly that that his injury-hit opponents would be unsettled with an unfamiliar lineup and with their eye on the Champions League, urging his squad to push forward to press high up the pitch in the first half to great effect. It was only wayward finishing that let the visitors down during this spell, with Ex-Red Peter Crouch just missing a Xherdan Shaqiri cross after recovering the ball with some good pressing. Minutes later, the combative Mame Diouf failed to capitalize on Loris Karius passing the ball straight to the other team under pressure, with the Senegalese striker directing his header just wide.
Liverpool were not completely toothless however, as the Stoke gameplan left one Mohamed Salah alone in one-on-one coverage with Erik Pieters for large periods of the match, a dangerous situation for any side. Needing only a single strike to break the Premier League record of 31 for the season, the route to victory in attack appeared to be through the sharpshooting forward. Indeed mere minutes into the match, it seemed that the most dangerous footballer in Europe on form would give his side the opener they needed when he found himself alone, in on goal on his favored left foot and with only keeper Jack Butland to beat—before he then inexplicably placed his trademark dink shot the wrong side of the post when scoring would’ve been easier.
The whole stadium sat back confused along with the 43-goal striker, a reaction followed by that familiar sinking feeling that this might not be the day. The feeling only grew when later on in the half, the Egyptian unselfishly laid off for a streaking Trent Alexander-Arnold in the box only for the teenager to scuff the ball into Butland’s arms after getting the ball tangled up under his feet. Danny Ings then got in the action, with the linesman apparently whipping out his league issue microscope to verify that the striker’s big toe was offside to rule out an emphatic close range strike late in the half.
The Anfield crowd, quieted momentarily by an injury scare to captain, Jordan Henderson at the end of the first period, woke up to the understanding that their side needed their help to squeak this one out in the second. Refrains of Allez Allez Allez and Liverpool rang through the grounds, with every positive piece of play roared on with unified encouragement. The Reds pushed on the best they could, while the visitors, exhausted from their first half efforts, gave up on anything resembling attack. Salah shot at every opportunity, Moreno blazed just wide, with even substitute Nathanial Clyne surprisingly almost heading home, with the rusty full back caught of two minds in the crucial moment of whether to shoot or to cross.
The pressure nearly, could’ve, should’ve paid off when Pieters, who had done an admirable job shackling Salah for most of the match, was somehow adjudged not to have intentionally handled the ball in the 85th minute after his outstretched arm prevented Gini Wijnaldum’s cross from finding Moreno’s waiting foot for a tap in.
Along with the Salah chance in the first half, it was this moment that ought to have won it for the Reds. A smattering of half chances at the end went wanting, typifying a middling performance by the team’s lofty standards, but it still ought to have been enough. Frustratingly, the match ended 0-0; thankfully, the team came through the match largely unscathed.
Wednesday’s deciding Champions League semifinal tie beckons with Liverpool one leg in the final, the other leg in the air, poised and ready to splash gleefully in. In the league, Klopp’s men have left themselves with all to do, with next week’s crucial tie to the chasing Chelsea taking on more urgency than many in Merseyside would’ve wanted. For now, however, it is on to the gladiatorial arena at the Stadio Olimpico to dispatch Roma, with a stop through London on the return.