With Gerrard and Lovren dropped, I had a faint hope that Rodgers finally realised that they needed time out of the team and the limelight. But Johnson and Enrique were our fullbacks instead of Moreno and Manquillo, and this worried me. Plus, many of the players played the full 90mins against Ludogorets in Bulgaria, and ran themselves into the ground while Rodgers only made 1 substitution. I was also worried about fitness. Nevertheless, I decided to watch the match.
It was probably the driest half of football I’ve seen yet, with not a single shot on target from either side. The referee was being incompetent as is the norm, and Stoke was using their size to their advantage. I wish we could have used our brains, but that’s asking too much from our FBs, neither who are particularly smart at football it seems.
Enrique was quick to return to his usual aimless balls lumped forward, and he had only a single good cross in the entire half. But at least he has the excuse of being rusty, as Johnson was the ultimate passenger, providing nothing in attack or defence. Then he upgraded to become a liability as he got possession at the edge of the box, and promptly just gave it away to the Stoke player pressing him lightly. Playing the best team to win the match, Rodgers? THEN STOP PLAYING GLEN JOHNSON ALREADY!
Skrtel and Toure did about as well as they could have done, which was to clear the long balls that Stoke likes to lump forwards. For all the ‘good work’ that Mark Hughes has done, they are still a pretty terrible side to watch and play against. Lucas had a good half, cleaning up in midfield, trying to break the deep Stoke lines with vertical passes, and getting forwards in support too. Allen wasn’t as influential, but was hustling…in the background I guess?
Henderson was given the burden of linking midfield to attack, and he didn’t do it brilliantly. There were a few moments when he combined well with others, but otherwise, his tendency to cross just gives away possession given Stoke’s height advantage over our attackers. Sterling and Coutinho both had some bright moments too, but they were few and far between, with the final ball lacking with all our players.
Lambert was mediocre, doing some good hold up play but also giving away the ball cheaply when we had a sniff on the counter. In the end, we’re lucky we’re playing Stoke, who are absolutely useless at attacking and only understands crossing. We might even keep a clean sheet at this rate.
Well, I remember a lot of ‘a game of two halves’ last season, and this was the same, except in reverse. I suppose both managers must have cajoled the players as the game was clearly there for the taking. Liverpool came to dominate the 2nd half as we fashioned chance after chance, with the final ball or the finish usually letting us down. Lucas had a brilliant chance when we were 5v3, but shot at the keeper. Allen had a glorious close-range shot he skewed high.
But Stoke were also playing much better, with Bojan hitting the post and Diouf having a chance cleared off the line by Sterling. Mignolet also had a fingertip save against a brilliant volley from the former Barca man, which would have done his confidence a world of good. He had a generally decent second half too, making some great saves and catching crosses he otherwise would have flapped at before.
Johnson also suddenly found some form, and started to put in interceptions and clearances, and also actually succeeding in taking on players and making a wonderful chance for Lambert earlier in the 2nd half. And he even scored a goal, after Henderson’s cross found Lambert, whose beautiful header hit the bar. Johnson was the first to reach the ball, diving headfirst to score as a defender hit his head with a boot and necessitated staples. But he finally justified his selection in the team with probably his best half of football for more than a year.
Skrtel, Toure and Enrique continued to perform about as well as they could have, which was shaky but not calamitous. There was one scary moment when the crowd was chanting Toure’s name, and he nearly gave away the ball. Up ahead, Allen grew into the game as he took over Lucas’ position once the defensive midfielder went off for Gerrard, having performed quite well. Henderson was knitting play together well, and Sterling was fouled numerous times as he charged at Stoke and forced them into errors.
Coutinho frustrated more than he delighted as he continually lost the ball, but did play his part in fashioning those great chances we had that we just couldn’t put away. He was also blatantly pushed in the box by Shawcross, which was a clear penalty, but the referee decided to be an ass and didn’t give it. He was eventually replaced by Lovren as we tried to sit out the 7 minutes of extra time, which we just about managed.
Finally, Lambert made a good account for himself, and although he lost the ball needlessly quite a few times, he continued to make some good hold-up play that brought others into the game. He was tireless in pressing, which was vastly improved over the previous half, and indeed, several games. It was this pressing that helped us defensively, and nearly created a goal when Lucas (pressing much higher than I expected the entire game) stole the ball off Stoke in their half, but it petered out to nothing.
Gerrard, despite having the legs, didn’t contribute much in the 20mins he was on the pitch, and the game got way more open as Lucas left the field. Coincidence? I would like to think so, but I think it’s not. But it’s so clear that Allen and/or Lucas make MUCH better deep-lying midfielders than Gerrard in his current form, and should continue to play. Gerrard needs to be managed like Lampard, not playing every game for 90mins in a role that doesn’t suit him or the team.
In the end, it was one of those nerve-wracking games that every football fan hates to love, and loves to hate. And we won, with a clean sheet to boot. I can only hope it’s a sign of better things to come.