Pressure on Benitez after Liverpool denied by Stoke

Stoke 1 Liverpool 1

Rafael Benitez was denied a victory to lift the intense pressure on him when Stoke grabbed a last-ditch equaliser at the Britannia Stadium.

It was never pretty, but this much-derided Liverpool outfit stood up to be counted in a physical showdown.

And they went ahead when Greek defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos scrambled home his first goal for the club early in the second period of a bitterly contested battle.

But Stoke's relentless aerial assault produced an equaliser from Robert Huth in the 89th minute.

It was a terrible blow for a Liverpool side facing pressure from all quarters, and they were even denied a winner in injury-time when Dirk Kuyt's diving header hit a post.

If under-fire Benitez believes the whole world is against him, he had plenty of evidence to support that theory here.

Benitez made six changes from the side humiliated in the FA Cup in midweek by Reading for a difficult away trip.

Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun and Daniel Agger are all injured, while Alberto Aquilani and Diego Cavalieri were dropped to the bench.

Jose Reina, Kyrgiakos, Martin Skrtel, Javier Mascherano, Fabio Aurelio and David Ngog all returned in a side that was dreadfully short of fire-power.

Stoke had Tuncay available after a hamstring scare while Salif Diao came in against his old club, with Liam Lawrence reverting to the bench.

This game was all about Benitez's future. His club are at an all-time low and the vultures are demanding his head.

Liverpool needed to do something to arrest an alarming plunge in form, with the manager and the club's status on the line.

Stoke fans were holding up giant P45s aimed at Benitez as this crucial game started, with Liverpool's fans belting out 'You'll Never Walk Alone' in open defiance of the position their team have got themselves into.

But Liverpool are a nerve-racked team these days, and that showed when Aurelio had the chance to send Mascherano away on his own but tried a ridiculous 40-yard attempt to expose an out-of-position Thomas Sorensen that sailed miles wide.

Liverpool struggled against Rory Delap's long throws from the start, Reina failing to get a positive punch on them, while at the other end the raw Ngog was being left on his own in an uneven battle with Stoke's giant defenders.

Lucas had two efforts blocked from the edge of the box, but too much of Liverpool's possession was wasted with woeful passing.

Stoke, though, always looked dangerous when the ball was in the air, or at Tuncay's feet.

Stoke lost Delap with a groin strain, Lawrence sprinting into the action, and a minute later Abdoulaye Faye also went off with a recurrence of a back problem to be replaced by Andy Wilkinson.

The half's only real flashpoint came when Liverpool had Lucas booked by referee Lee Mason for diving in the box, although replays suggested he was caught by Danny Higginbotham's challenge.

But without their star men, and way short on confidence, Liverpool's attempts to play a passing game constantly disintegrated against a combative Stoke.

The Potters' renowned attritional long ball game is always likely to be successful against any team in such a state and Liverpool constantly looked stretched under the barrage.

Stoke started the second period intent on taking control, and Lawrence saw a 20-yard free-kick deflected wide.

But then Liverpool took a leaf from Stoke's book, going ahead from a free-kick after 57 minutes.

Aurelio curled the ball towards the near post and Sorensen did not gather cleanly under pressure from Kyrgiakos, the Greek defender getting the final touch on the line to score his first goal for the club.

Stoke responded when Tuncay nodded over after Ryan Shawcross flicked on a Diao throw. Stoke replaced Mamady Sidibe with Ricardo Fuller after 66 minutes to freshen up their attack.

Diao was booked for dissent before Fuller tested Reina with a flicked header at the near post after 75 minutes.

Liverpool then sent on new boy Maxi Rodriguez for his first taste of English football after 78 minutes in place of Philipp Degen.

Stoke hurled their big men forward for every corner and Liverpool were forced into desperate defence at times, with Skrtel and Kyrgiakos giving everything.

Liverpool brought on Aquilani for Ngog after 87 minutes, Stoke piling on the pressure now with constant, dangerous set-plays.

And eventually Liverpool cracked. Matthew Etherington's corner was headed back across goal in the 89th minute for Huth to score from close range.

Reina was booked for time wasting but Kuyt's near miss almost provided a final dramatic twist in injury time.

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