The sight of Brendan Rodgers racing down the touchline after Glen Johnson’s late winning goal summed up the sense of relief that gripped Anfield. A Liverpool side whose tentative efforts had earned howls of frustration during a woeful first half had stirred themselves and snatched their first League victory since 19 October.
It was a match that could have gone either way – Stoke had more possession and more shots on target – but for Liverpool yesterday, winning was all that mattered. They had gone into the game on the back of three straight League defeats and until half-time the main talking point was Steven Gerrard’s demotion to the bench on the 16th anniversary of his first-team debut.
Liverpool may be one of the most sentimental of football cities but there was no place for it in Rodgers’ selection yesterday as the 34-year-old started a game on the bench for the first time since New Year’s Day.
Rodgers said: “Steven is at the point of his career where he is not going to be playing in every game or every minute of every game, he has played against Crystal Palace and in Ludogorets where he was outstanding. We have other players here who can come in and do a job and Steven understands it. I wasn’t aware it was the 16 years [anniversary] until I walked into to the changing room and saw the programme.”
Gerrard was on the pitch by the time of the only goal, replacing Lucas after 75 minutes, but it came from a less likely source. Johnson had not scored since December 2012 but when Rickie Lambert’s header bounced down off the crossbar with five minutes remaining, he flung himself at the loose ball and nodded into the net. In the process, he picked up a nasty head wound from the boot of Erik Pieters.
“He showed great courage and bravery,” said Rodgers, who said the same of his entire team, who may be “low on confidence” but looked a side prepared to dig out a result for their manager.
Liverpool improved considerably in the second half. If Johnson was the improbable hero, there were also important contributions from the much-maligned goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and the pair of Kolo Touré and Lucas, both making rare league starts.
Stoke shrugged off injuries to Steve Sidwell and his early replacement Glenn Whelan, who made way himself for Charlie Adam at half time, and were aggrieved to leave Anfield empty-handed. Mark Hughes, their manager, noted that the game became “more open because we were looking for a winner ourselves”.
Although Jordan Henderson flashed a shot inches wide soon after the restart, Stoke could have made the breakthrough. Mame Biram Diouf was foiled by Mignolet after racing clear on to Bojan’s clever through ball. Bojan then broke into the box and shot against the near post. Stoke have not scored a League goal at Anfield since March 1983 and their luck was out again – a point summed up when Mignolet tipped over a Bojan piledriver in stoppage time. “I thought the outstanding player on the day was Bojan,” said Hughes.”
Yet in Raheem Sterling, Liverpool had their own livewire. He sent Lucas through only for Begovic to make the save and then squared for Joe Allen to fire over when a goal seemed certain. Sterling even blocked a Diouf shot on the goal-line, before Liverpool finally broke through.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Johnson, Skrtel, Touré, Enrique; Lucas (Gerrard, 75), Allen; Henderson, Coutinho (Lovren, 88), Sterling; Lambert.
Stoke (4-2-3-1): Begovic ; Cameron, Shawcross, Wilson, Pieters; Sidwell (Whelan, 22; Adam, h-t), Nzonzi; Walters, Bojan, Arnautovic (Crouch, 88); Diouf.
Referee: Craig Pawson
Man of the match: Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
Match rating: 7/10