The Potteries have never been much of a happy hunting ground for Liverpool. Stoke’s time under Tony Pulis was particularly successful against Liverpool, although their last win came before the Welshman’s departure two and a half years ago now – a 6-1 win in Steven Gerrard’s final appearance for Liverpool. Our struggles in Stoke have seen us lose many winnable games over the years. However, our win there last season sparked a mini-turning point in our season. It saw us push on to claim the Champions League place we have earned over the course of the prior eight months. Maybe that win represented more than a turning point in our fortunes last season. Maybe it represented a turning point in our fortunes at the Bet365 Stadium.
Mark Hughes decided to stick with the 3-4-2-1 formation which has typified his side this season. Ryan Shawcross was joined in a back three by Chelsea loanee Kurt Zouma and Bruno Martins Indi. Ex-Reds Joe Allen and Peter Crouch started, as well as former target Xherdan Shaqiri.
Jurgen Klopp decided to continue his rotation policy tonight. Joel Matip was the only change in the back line, having missed the 1-1 draw with Chelsea thanks to injury. Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can returned to the line up in place of James Milner and Jordan Henderson. Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane also started, in favour of Philippe Coutinho and, surprisingly, Mohamed Salah. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain managed to maintain his place, but Daniel Sturridge was dropped from the squad altogether for Dominic Solanke to gain a rare start.
A tentative start from Stoke saw Liverpool take the onus in the game. The home side seemed to be happy for us to have most of the possession and we were content to seize control of the ball at any opportunity. Most of our play was directed through the middle, with Liverpool looking for late runners from midfield in the form of either Can or Wijnaldum. Stoke attempted to attack through the pace of Diouf, though with little success against the equally quick and much improved Alberto Moreno. Liverpool continued to control the play until the seventeenth minute – when we took the lead.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played in Joe Gomez on the right side of the Stoke box. Gomez scampered across and just about kept the ball in play, much to the protestations of the Stoke support in the Boothen End. Solanke was able to gather the cut back andflick it between Shawcross’ legs beautifully into the path of Sadio Mane. He chipped Lee Grant and the ball dribbled over the line to put Liverpool ahead. The shouts for the goal to be disallowed went on but Mane ignored them and continued his celebrations. It was a deserved lead for Liverpool but the controversy wouldn’t end there.
Stoke began to come into the game more and were finding ways through Liverpool. Their best chance came when a long ball was played over the top for Diouf to run onto. Mignolet stayed at home and tried to leave it for Matip. He also dithered and Diouf was now clean through on goal. Mignolet finally decided to clear the danger, but Diouf got a toe to the ball first and nipped it away from Mignolet. The ‘keeper had already committed to the tackle though and cleaned out Diouf on the edge of the box. Stoke fans again howled in derision at the referee who proceeded to pull out his yellow card instead of the much anticipated red. Mignolet was a lucky boy to still be on the pitch.
Chances came for Oxlade-Chamberlain and Solanke, who both had efforts saved by Grant in the Stoke goal. There was one last big chance to come before the half time whistle blew and it again went to Mane. The Senegalese forward found himself through on goal, one-on-one with Lee Grant. With forty yards to eat up, he raced towards goal leaving the trailing defenders in his wake. With twenty yards between him and the net, he let fly but could only find the foot of the post. It was a massive let off for Stoke and would ensure they would go in at half time only one down.
Stoke had not been particularly good in the first half and that had contributed to Liverpool not conceding so far. It was the same old story for The Reds; scintillating going forward but shaky at the back. Mignolet was lucky to still be on the pitch and to have not had the ball fly into his goal as yet. There definitely improvements needed for both sides in the second half.
When the second half kicked off Stoke staged a mini-revival. Joe Allen had appeared to have decided that he would not let his former team off without a fight. He would have two glaring chances at the beginning of the half to get Stoke back into the game. First he raced onto a low cross, which he directed wide via the left foot of Joel Matip. Then he ran onto a Peter Crouch knock down and volleyed it into the Boothen End, despite being unmarked and only ten yards out. They were misses that would eventually come back to haunt him and Mark Hughes. That was because not long after Liverpool would make a decisive change in the game. Enter Mo Salah.
Salah entered the fray and immediately became Liverpool’s outlet. On seventy seven minutes Sadio Mane gained possession on the Liverpool right. He twisted and turned Bruno Martins Indi to hold up the ball, before dragging him to the byline. Stoke players jogged back but not with enough urgency. Mane chipped a decent ball across the box for Salah from the byline and what proceeded to take place was sheer brilliance. Salah backed away from goal and positioned himself perfectly to take the cross first time, on the volley, and smash it past Lee Grant from twelve yards out. It was a sublime finish, Salah’s sixteenth of the season. It was the sign of a player who was flying with confidence, but also showed just what the little Egyptian was capable of. Six minutes later, he would put the game to bed.
Alberto Moreno tried to play a diagonal cross-field ball to Salah which was slightly over-hit. Eric Pieters was tracking the run of Salah and looked to be the favourite to deal with the ball. However, the Dutch left-back completely misjudged the flight of the ball and it hit his back before falling into the path of Salah. Pieters tried to recover by poking it back to Grant, but he didn’t get enough power on it and Salah was now clean through and only twelve yards from goal. There was only one outcome from there and Salah duly obliged by passing it beyond Grant, into the bottom corner of the Stoke goal. It was superb cameo from the former Chelsea man which had won his side the game and displayed his class. Stoke had been stunned and seen the game slip away from them in six stunning minutes of play.
As the stadium emptied of the disgruntled home fans the only noise to be heard came from the away. They were spurred on as Liverpool continued to scythe through Stoke, our best chance coming from a Gini Wijnaldum free kick which was parried over by Grant. When the ref blew the final whistle it called time on an impressive Liverpool performance. We had been shaky in parts but had largely overpowered Stoke. They had a decent spell after half time but did to have the quality to capitalise on Liverpool’s defensive shortcomings. Despite Liverpool’s obvious class advantage, the main difference between the two sides was a right winger who now has seventeen beautiful goals to his name. With Brighton up next and Salah in this form, it is hard to bet against Liverpool at the Amex.