Liverpool fought off a stirring comeback from Stoke City to win a 5-3 thriller at the Britannia Stadium and regain possession of the treasured fourth place in the Premier League.
An own goal from Ryan Shawcross and a strike from Luis Suarez, after a series of Stoke errors, had put the visitors two goals to the good just past the half-hour mark. Stoke soon rallied and had Liverpool on the ropes as two former Reds, Peter Crouch and Charlie Adam, pulled their current side level by half-time. But a controversial penalty, converted by Steven Gerrard, and the reunion of Suarez’s partnership with Daniel Sturridge, with both on target courtesy of assists from the other eventually secured Liverpool the points, despite Jonathan Walters temporarily causing more flutters when making it 4-3 with five minutes remaining.
Brendan Rodgers had praised the unity in the squad that had been spurred by Simon Mignolet’s late penalty save against Stoke on the opening day of the season in the buildup to this return fixture. And that spirit was needed on Sunday as they fought off a rousing challenge from the hosts. While Mark Hughes has been credited with overhauling Stoke’s direct, physical approach, they showed plenty of those trademark attributes in their efforts to disrupt a team who had never previously won at the Britannia Stadium in the Premier League.
Having, in truth, done little to attain their two-goal lead, Rodgers will have been disappointed that Liverpool’s weakness of struggling to preserve leads resurfaced. Yet, albeit helped by a couple of generous refereeing decisions that led to their penalty, he will be delighted that they were able to wrest back the ascendency after the break. And a big part of that was the resumption, after a six-week absence of Sturridge through injury, of Liverpool’s strike duo. With Suarez and Sturridge in tandem, Rodgers must be confident heading into what could prove to be a crucial showdown for a Champions League place against Merseyside neighbors Everton at the end of January.
Their positive start to the match, though, was in large part donated. Liverpool’s first gift arrived after just five minutes. Raheem Sterling’s chip into the box went awry and fell to Aly Cissokho 25 yards out, who hit a wildly miscued first-time shot that was heading well wide until clattering into Shawcross and bouncing past the wrong-footed Jack Butland.
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There arguably should then have been a penalty at both ends. Martin Skrtel, who was guilty of persistent grabbing of opposition shirts at set-pieces, avoided sanction for wrestling Shawcross to the ground, while Butland came to punch a cross away but the only contact he made was with the face of Suarez. Having brushed off the blow, in the 32nd minute, Suarez was to be the beneficiary of some extraordinarily charitable defending.
A long hoof forward from Skrtel was first met by a woefully short header back to his own keeper by Marc Wilson, before Shawcross made a further bumbled intervention in front of the stranded Butland, allowing the relentless Suarez to pounce and slide in from the angle.
Stoke, though, showed little dejection to going 2-0 down early on. Instead they persisted with their unsettling tactics and with their umpteen cross into the box they were rewarded. Suarez was caught out tracking back down the right and allowed the talented Marko Arnautovic too much space to cut in on his favored right foot and whip in a cross that Crouch met excellently from just behind him to direct it into the bottom corner.
Having curled over early on, Philippe Coutinho’s finishing was again found wanting when he volleyed straight at Butland with a chance to reassert Liverpool’s two-goal advantage. Yet, it was Stoke that now had a head of steam. The pressure they were exerting on their opponents was demonstrated in their equalizer just before the break.
A slack pass from Jordan Henderson saw both Adam and Gerrard slip trying to retrieve it, but it was the Stoke man who recovered his footing quicker to seize on it and turn toward goal. A couple of touches followed before, 20 yards out, he drilled a scintillating shot that went through the legs of Skrtel giving Mignolet even less of a chance to stop the ball from crashing into the corner of the net.
Expectedly, after such a rousing finale to the opening period, Stoke’s intensity continued at the start of the second half. But once more they were undone by some hapless defending, with some bad luck thrown in for good measure. Wilson’s dreadful outing continued when he cleared straight against Sterling, who ran through on goal before jumping at the opportunity to go to ground in the box as the Stoke defender stuck a leg across his body. However, while the penalty was soft in the extreme, Wilson and Stoke also failed to get the benefit of the referee’s decision when the ball initially bounced against Sterling’s outstretched arm.
Having failed to make the most of another opportunity with a tame finish, Coutinho was taken off to be replaced by Sturridge, who provided a much more clinical edge. The former Chelsea man, who still has a tendency to keep his head down with the ball at his feet, showed his broadening attributes when superbly drawing three Stoke defenders to him on the edge of the box before flicking a pass to his left for Suarez who placed a shot expertly into the corner.
While Stoke admirably continued to battle until the end and pulled one back when Walter’s tame shot went through the legs of the slow-to-close-down Kolo Toure to leave Mignolet unable to get down quickly enough, Liverpool’s front two proved decisive. The final, decisive blow came when, from Suarez’s pass, Sturridge was denied first time by Butland but regained control of the ball before drilling it inside the near post.