Not for the first time this season, disbelief swept around Anfield. Unsurprisingly it was the PFA Player of the Year Mohamed Salah at the centre of it all. What did shock the Anfield crowd, however, was that it did not end in a goal. A goal that would have given Stoke a mountain to climb and could have signalled the start of an onslaught.
The match was only six minutes old when Salah was sent through. He controlled the ball, taking it in his stride and chipped it over the onrushing Jack Butland. The crowd celebrated, jumping to their feet, clapping their hands. American broadcasters NBC even flashed their scoreboard graphic before changing Liverpool’s 0 to a 1.
But then, only then, did everyone realise that Salah hadn’t scored. He had put it wide of the post. In all, it was telling of the expectations that Salah has to deal with. The trust that Liverpool fans have that he will put the finish on a normally well-done job is apparent. However, on this occasion, despite everyone believing otherwise, Salah had missed.
The goal that never was, would have surely been the beginning of the end for Stoke on this particular afternoon – and quite possibly the season. The opening exchanges were rather chaotic and surprisingly open, quite similar to the match against Roma in mid-week. Stoke had taken a leaf out of the rather hopeless book of Eusebio Di Francesco – playing a high-line with Salah receiving the man-marking treatment. Soon enough – after Salah’s goal that wasn’t a goal but should have been a goal – they reverted to type, and played the following 70 minutes or so compact and relatively deep.
The similarities between this match and the one that graced Anfield on Tuesday evening ended there. A high-scoring thriller with emotions ranging from pure ecstasy and joy to a slight tinge of disappointment were exchanged for a nil-nil encounter with few clear chances and an ever-growing sense of frustration amongst the crowd. It is all ifs and buts, yet if Salah had converted that glorious chance, there would have been little hope of Stoke retrieving a point and Liverpool more than likely would have sensed blood.
Compared to last week’s semi-final clash, this was an end of season match-up that felt like one of those last days of term – despite there still being a fair amount on the line. Liverpool’s top four spot is still not guaranteed and treating matches like these with little respect is dangerous. Jurgen Klopp rung the changes; Sadio Mane was left out to be fully fit for the return-leg in Rome on Wednesday and so Danny Ings started a second consecutive Premier League match – confirming that he is very much higher up the pecking order than Dominic Solanke.
Although making such changes in between two crucial semi-final matches in Europe could be considered understandable – injury being one of the major concerns, and one survivor from the first-leg against Roma, Jordan Henderson, did pick up a slight knock which exemplified the point further – it is rather superfluous. The much-used phrase of momentum must be considered, and in this case little positivity will be able to be taken from this match and result.
This was Liverpool’s third 12:30 kickoff in four weeks and, along with the other two, it ended with dropped points against an opposition that should have been beaten. Everton, West Brom and Stoke have hardly been world-beaters this season and yet given a lunchtime game against Liverpool, they end up leaving the happier of the two.
During Liverpool’s hugely impressive run in this season’s Champions League there have been times when the foot has been taken off the accelerator that bit too much – eyes have become focused on the bigger things to come, heads have been turned. However, over the past month, Liverpool have simply not performed just after noon on a Saturday – the atmosphere has hardly been inductive of a thriller.
Goal-scoring chances were few and far between. Apart from Salah’s miss, Liverpool really failed to test Butland significantly. All too often promising attacks were halted by a poor final ball that – quite like the porridge in Goldilocks – was either too firm or too weak but never just right. Stoke’s rather high-line did give Salah and Ings space to run into but soon enough, the visitor’s defence crept back into a more rigid and sturdy setup. Eric Pieters dealt with Salah fairly convincingly; he epitomised Stoke: not nice, not pretty but wily and, in some cases, lucky.
It was the link up between Pieters and Moritz Bauer that brought about Stoke’s first decent chance of a goal. Bauer delivered a pinpoint cross to the back post but Mame Biram Diouf could only head against the post. Minutes later, Xherdan Shaqiri got the better of Alberto Moreno and slipped a teasing ball across the six-yard box. Peter Crouch slid in but could not quite stretch enough – if he couldn’t reach it, then anyone else had no chance. The visitor’s attacks became less and less frequent as the match grew older, only adding to the frustrations of Diouf and Crouch who both received yellow cards.
Liverpool sensed that one goal would then open the floodgates, as has been the case for much of the season, the first has been the most important. Ings forced Butland into a reactive save, Georginio Wijnaldum shot just wide of the post and a Salah free-kick from just outside of the penalty area stroked the side-netting.
There was plenty of possession but not enough control or clinical finishing. The absence of Mane was telling – his movement and creativity especially. Roberto Firmino – playing in a deeper role – was often too far from Butland’s goal to have a telling impact.
Joe Gomez and Moreno – both coming into the team for this match – were rusty. Gomez in particular looked nervy and short on confidence. In fact, his boots resembled cannons; every pass he made was far too pacey and lacked clear direction. The crowd soon sensed his anxiety.
James Milner came on and along with Henderson dominated the midfield area and wasn’t afraid to stick a foot in. And it was a Henderson pass that instigated one of Liverpool’s best chances of the match just before half-time. A Wijnaldum pass was deflected into the path of Ings who, from an extremely tight angle, managed to find the top corner of the net with a two-touch finish. The linesman’s referee was raised, however, and the goal was rightly ruled out for offside.
That was amongst the many decisions by the officials that irked the home crowd. Every time that referee Andre Marriner brought his whistle to his lips the fans in the Kop seemed that bit more aggrieved – in most cases, they were well within their right. A handball worthy of a penalty in the final minutes was waved away when everyone – even those with the benefit of TV monitor replays – agreed that it should have been given.
The second-half was intense, Liverpool through everything including the kitchen sink but there was little flow or quality to their sustained attacks. Every minute brought that extra bit of hope for Stoke but also an increase in Liverpool pressure. Paul Lambert, in six visits, has never lost at Anfield as a manager but it all got too much for him at the death when, from a flick on, Diouf lobbed a shot over Karius and, arriving at the far post, Ryan Shawcross steered the ball into the side-netting. Lambert sank with head in hands alongside a former classmate in Klopp from his coaching course in Germany.
Lambert, much of the match, kicked and headed every ball – exhibiting the passion that his players have been lacking for much of the season – he effectively had his own match in his technical area for the entire ninety minutes, by the time of the full-time whistle he must have been knackered having played the role of his 11 players. Although the real things had hardly disappointed him on an afternoon where a draw felt like a victory.
The pressure applied by Chelsea on the race for the top-four places is getting that bit more intense. There is no doubt that Liverpool have bigger fish to fry this week but the opportunity to finish in the top four for a successive season must not be neglected. “It is not the best day of my life,” Klopp said, “but I have had worse days, so let’s take this and go for Rome.”