After Rafa Benitez had made his unexpected contribution to Premier League jollity on Friday there was more for Manchester United than Liverpool to smile about here yesterday evening. Stoke City, who have made life difficult for most of their distinguished visitors this season, did so again with their broad-brush football, preventing Liverpool from extending their lead at the top of the table by more than a single point ahead of United's game with Chelsea today. It means that by the time the leaders play again, in the Mersey derby tomorrow week, United could conceivably have won three matches(they are at home to Wigan on Wednesday) to overhaul them.
Not that Benitez was in the mood to withdraw a word of his complaints about Sir Alex Ferguson. He even added some more, claiming that his club had received widespread support for his comments. "Mr [sic] Ferguson was talking too much about Liverpool for a long time and he has to stop," he said. "Maybe in 20 years nobody has said these things. A lot of people were thinking the same and were glad that one person said something everybody wanted to say. Maybe he is a little bit scared." It may have suited Liverpool's manager not to dwell too much on his side's performance yesterday, which was hardly that of champions.
Fernando Torres did not appear until the last half-hour and Steven Gerrard was far from the dominant figure he had been the previous week at Preston, his frustration summed up by collecting a yellow card for taking a free-kick too quickly, then clipping the top of the bar and a post just beforethe end. Xabi Alonso was missing injured, and although Javier Mascherano had every incentive to impress the watching Argentina manager, Diego Maradona, midfield was not for once a key area.
It rarely is when Stoke play, their preferred – and perfectly legitimate – method being to knock the ball high and long to two big forwards. Unfortunately the first-choice pair were both missing (Ricardo Fuller after a sending-off for slapping his own captain) and the replacements had little joy against Sami Hyypia and Martin Skrtel, who were probably Liverpool's best players. The home side, who hope to sign James Beattie from Sheffield United, were also well served by their central defenders, in particular Abdoulaye Faye. Matthew Etherington was a lively debutant after joining from West Ham but scoring chances were rare.
Not surprisingly, two of Stoke's best ones followed Rory Delap's long throw-ins. Liverpool failed to clear the first of them, after 12 minutes, any further than Amdy Faye, who hooked the ball back into the danger area. As it bobbledaround Delap appeared, six yards out and looking offside, to smash it against the bar, Richard Cresswell managing to do no better than instinctively jab the rebound wide. The referee's assistant did a better job to save Liverpool on the half-hour. He spotted that Ryan Shawcross was a yard the wrong side of the defenders as he headed in a left-wing cross. That followed an alarming failure by Pepe Reina to get anywhere near a sky-high ball sent into orbit by Danny Higginbotham.
Benitez must have been agitated at the manner in which his team surrendered their early control so comprehensively. In that spell Dirk Kuyt headed Albert Riera's centre wide with Thomas Sorensen stranded, and the goalkeeper then did better from Kuyt's angled shot after his defence passed up three chances to clear their lines.
The home crowd were delighted with their team's first half, however, and had more to encourage them early in the second half as Reina continued in unusually shaky fashion. In the 50th minute he skidded a low clearance straight to Dave Kitson, who was forced slightly too wide in veering roundthe goalkeeper and could only hit the side-netting.
The manager was soon on the phone from the directors' box, sending instructions that Torres should be brought on, and Liverpool did at least, and at last, begin to move forward with more menace. But Lucas wasted a rare chance by trying to head across goal instead of beating Sorensen. AnotherDelap throw led to a wonderful chance for his team with quarter of an hour to play. This one was flung from the left-hand side and Kitson charged in unmarked to head it narrowly over the bar. Then Glenn Whelan curled a free-kick equally close.
It would have been an injustice had Gerrard ended a surreal couple of days by succeeding with one of his two belated efforts.
Referee: Lee Mason
Man of the match: Abdoulaye Faye
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content