Liverpool still do not look convincing top-four candidates but at least the rot has been stopped. A late goal by Glen Johnson secured the first win of a fraught November and meant Stoke left empty-handed after a battling performance for the second season in succession. On the opening day last season Simon Mignolet saved a last-minute penalty to deny Stoke what would have been a well-deserved point. The home side lived dangerously in the last few minutes but were slightly better value for their victory here, and that might be the best news Brendan Rodgers has had in weeks. “We needed a result and we needed to show resilience and courage,” Rodgers said. “We did all that,we kept going against a good team.”
It is exactly 16 years since Steven Gerrard made his Liverpool debut and the Anfield match programme went big on the anniversary, though the Liverpool captain had to be satisfied with a place on the bench. He is 34 after all, and Rodgers accepts he should not be asked to play three games in a week, though that hardly applies to the rest of the Liverpool substitutes. Five of Liverpool’s summer signings found themselves keeping Gerrard company on the sidelines, with Rickie Lambert, in for the injured Mario Balotelli, the only capture with the Luis Suárez money asked to start the game. Liverpool spent almost £120m in the summer, just £4m of it invested in Lambert as a supposed Plan B.
Rodgers’ transfer business has come under scrutiny during Liverpool’s run of defeats. One highly critical supporter on the radio before kick-off said faults were glaringly obvious last season even though a second-place finish was achieved, and went so far as to describe Suárez as a fig leaf that covered the side’s many embarrassing shortcomings. The Uruguay striker has been called many things in his time, but a fig leaf of respectability is probably a first.
Suárez would certainly have enlivened proceedings here. It is no exaggeration to suggest the loudest cheer of a numbingly dull first half-hour was for the sight of Gerrard taking a jog along the touchline with the other substitutes. Raheem Sterling put a low cross along the six-yard line early on with no team-mates sufficiently far up the pitch to take advantage, the less than universally popular Johnson allowed himself to be dispossessed on the edge of his own area but got away with it because Bojan Krkic could not find anyone in support either, and, give or take a shot at each end from Martin Skrtel and Jon Walters, that was about it for first-half excitement. When Philippe Coutinho set off on a run on the stroke of half-time, making space for a shot but ultimately scuffing it, the Stoke fans in the Anfield Road end dryly began chanting: “Suárez would have scored that.”
Stoke played a tight, tidy pressing game without creating too many attacking chances, Liverpool were presumably supposed to be advancing through Coutinho, Sterling or Jordan Henderson with the ball on the floor but ended up lumping hopeful long balls in the direction of Lambert. It produced a stalemate that suited the visitors, one place above Liverpool in the table, but left the locals wondering what exactly Rodgers meant when he said his side could still manage a top-four finish. People are beginning to collect Brendanisms, and there was a marvellous one in the manager’s programme notes. “Only our confidence has been knocked,” he said. “Belief has not been affected.”
Mignolet’s confidence must have been affected by all the criticism that has come his way of late, some of it justified, but the goalkeeper came to Liverpool’s rescue when Stoke threatened a breakaway goal. Krkic measured a pass perfectly to play in the impressive Mame Biram Diouf behind Skrtel but Mignolet was out quickly to first make the angle difficult then smother the eventual shot.
The game briefly came to life after that, with Krkic thumping a shot against an upright when he appeared to have done everything necessary to score, and Sterling going straight down the other end to miss the target by a matter of inches. Lucas really should have opened the scoring when a loose pass by Marko Arnautovic invited Liverpool to break in numbers from halfway, but when a clear shooting opportunity opened up with the whole of the goal to aim at from inside the area the midfielder could only manage to find Asmir Begovic standing tall. Liverpool were building up a head of steam by the last quarter, however, and after Lambert forced another save from Begovic the best chance of the game was put over the bar by Joe Allen, whose close-range shot took a deflection off Charlie Adam.
Unsurprisingly Rodgers turned to Gerrard before any of his other substitutes in an attempt to break the deadlock, sending his captain on for the last 15 minutes. An obvious, if cliched scenario now presented itself but it did not happen. Instead of Gerrard coming up with the winning goal in the closing minutes it was Johnson, bravely diving in for a header after Lambert had seen an attempt come back off the bar, picking up a cut on the head from contact with Erik Pieters’ boot in the process but ultimately forcing the ball past Begovic in front of the Kop.
All Liverpool had to worry about after that was Rodgers’ decision to reinforce the defence with Dejan Lovren for the time that remained, including a whopping seven added minutes. “It was a bit harsh at the end, we deserved to leave with something,” Mark Hughes said. “We put a huge effort in and I thought Bojan was the best player on the pitch. We are really encouraged by what he is producing, what we need to do is find a way of giving him the ball more often.”