Nights like the one we all enjoyed against Roma don’t come around often. When they do though, they can be hard to recover from. It’s like that one great night out you have a year and the hangover the next day can seem horrific. Or going on holiday and coming home to go back to work on Monday morning. Anytime Liverpool play lately is a joyous occasion but coming down from the high of the Champions League semi-final first leg win over Roma on Tuesday was going to be difficult. Anfield was never going to be the cauldron of noise it was in midweek for the visit of Stoke, however, Liverpool needed to be just as devastating to get a vital three points.
With the second leg coming on Wednesday Jurgen Klopp decided to make five changes to his side. Alberto Moreno and Ragnar Klavan came into the back four in place of Dejan Lovren and Andrew Robertson, while Trent Alexander-Arnold moved into midfield to replace the rested James Milner. Joe Gomez would start the game at right-back. With a shortage of midfielders currently in the Liverpool first team Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum wouldn’t be afforded the same luxury as James Milner, and neither would Roberto Firmino or Mo Salah. I’m sure the latter wouldn’t have seen it as a luxury anyhow considering he needs just one more Premier League goal to break the record for number of goals scored in a single season. Danny Ings would come in for Sadio Mane though, with the manager not taking a risk on the Senegalese forward’s dead leg.
Paul Lambert brought an unbeaten personal record to Anfield and was looking for that to rub off on his relegation threatened chargers. Liverpool target Jack Butland started in goal while two former Liverpool players, Joe Allen and Peter Crouch, would take their usual places in midfield and up front respectively. Erik Pieters was given the task of containing Mo Salah, while Kurt Zouma began the game at right-back.
Liverpool started strongly and were able to forge early chances. The best came on six minutes when Jordan Henderson play Salah clean through. With only Butland to beat, Salah chipped the goalkeeper but only managed to fire wide of the post. It was a horrendous miss and one the Egyptian will have been kicking himself over considering his form this season. Liverpool wouldn’t let up though and continued to attack the Stoke goal at will. On twenty-one minutes we were in again. This time a wonderful switched ball from left to right from Wijnaldum found Salah again unmarked. This time, instead of going alone Salah played in the onrushing Alexander-Arnold. He slid in the youngster who couldn’t sort his feet out before rolling a shot straight at Butland.
Buoyed by the miss of Salah though, Stoke would start to create their own chances. Moritz Bauer was able to evade a lunging challenge from Gomez to give himself time on the left side of the Liverpool box. He cut back onto his right foot before finding Mame Biram Diouf at the back post. However, Diouf couldn’t direct his header back into danger, despite being unmarked. Moments later it was Shaqiri who had time on the right edge of the Liverpool box. He cut it back to a sliding Peter Crouch but even his legs weren’t long enough to reach the poorly weighted squared ball. Stoke were still alive and that was dangerous for Liverpool.
After Wijnaldum screwed a shot wide of Butland’s near post and Mo Salah sent a free kick spectacularly into the side netting, Liverpool would have the ball in the back of the net. Danny Ings played a one-two with Roberto Firmino and the Brazilian’s return pass spun into the air. Ings took one touch before beautifully volleying in from an angle, but the flag had gone up and the goal was ruled out for offside. Liverpool were getting ever closer but were denied the chance to take the lead before half-time with the referee blowing his whistle not long after. Paul Lambert will have been happy with his sides performance so far while Jurgen Klopp will have wanted more pace and incision from Liverpool.
The second half began with Liverpool taking onus of the game. Stoke seemed happy to relinquish any attacking effort in an attempt to take something from Anfield. We were seeing a lot of The Kop end as the play was forever facing Jack Butland’s goal, but we were failing to do anything noteworthy with the ball. Long shots and crosses rained into the Stoke box but the back three of Bruno Martins-Indi, Ryan Shawcross and Kurt Zouma dealt with everything thrown at them with ease.
Klopp reacted surprisingly by bringing on Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner for Danny Ings and Trent Alexander-Arnold. It later transpired that Alexander-Arnold had a slight hip injury and was struggling to move, though the introduction of Clyne over the much more attacking option of Ben Woodburn seemed quizzical. Clyne hugged the touchline looking to provide much needed width to the Liverpool attack, while Milner tried to pop up anywhere he could on the edge of the Stoke box in an attempt to create some vital space for Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino to work their magic in.
It was proving futile though and as the game moved towards the final ten minutes we were still goalless. After spending most of the game in second gear we had decided to finally show up for closing stages. There was now more speed about Liverpool’s play as we tried force errors out of the opposition. With five minutes left to play though it was almost Stoke who took all the points. Mame Biram Diouf managed to hook a cross over the flailing arms of Loris Karius for Ryan Shawcross to attack at the far post. The ex-Manchester United defender was unmarked three yards out with an open goal to aim for and seemed certain to score. However, his desperate slide only served to scuff the ball wide. It was probably Stoke’s best and last chance to claim maximum points from this match.
Liverpool then pressed on looking for a winner. With three minutes to go Wijnaldum had the ball on the left edge of the box. He turned and clipped it across to an unmarked James Milner, who surely would have scored with Jack Butland closing down the Dutchman’s angle. His cross hit Pieters on the arm and it looked a stonewall penalty, but referee Andre Marriner disagreed and waved play on. There was no replay needed here, it was an obvious penalty. No wonder there are no English referees going to the World Cup.
As time petered out a winner looked unlikely and when the referee did blow for full time it was the end of a frustrating and disappointing afternoon for Liverpool. With Chelsea playing Swansea later in the day, a game you fancied them to win, this was a massive opportunity missed to put some much-needed distance between ourselves and our hosts next week. Instead, we now face the prospect of going to Stamford Bridge with Chelsea just six points behind us and having a game in hand.
Many people will have come away from this game in a relaxed mood. After all, it seems facetious to bemoan a draw that has come between the two legs of a Champions League semi-final. But there are many reasons to be annoyed at this result. Take away the fact this was a game we should have won, and one in which we had twenty shots on goal but only two on target, it was also our twelfth league draw of the season and our seventh at home. Those are stats that are unacceptable, especially when you consider that some of those games have been against West Bromwich Albion, Everton and Burnley. You can’t help but be disappointed with that and that is surely how Liverpool’s players will have felt in that dressing room.