Liverpool 4 Stoke City 1: Whatever questions asked of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool team this season, they have come up with the answers.
All your Premier League title rivals win 24 hours earlier heaping the focus on you? No problem.
Fall behind to the first goal of the game at Anfield for first time in the Premier League in this campaign? No worries.
Where once this kind of pressure would have shredded the nerves of Liverpool’s players, now there is an innate self-confidence engendered by their manager.
It was evident in Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund team, where a never-say-die attitude and togetherness crried them to back-to-back Bundesliga titles. And it is being replicated at Anfield.
In old fashioned terms, Liverpool have bottle. Stomach for the fight to go with their talent.
The gauntlet was laid down on St Stephen’s Day by the pretenders to the Premier League crown; three points for Manchester City, Arsenal victorious and leaders Chelsea clinching a win that had put them nine points clear.
But despite Jonathan Walters’ early goal there was no danger Liverpool would panic. Good teams grow into games, good teams grow into seasons. Liverpool are a good team.
This victory extended Liverpool’s unbeaten home run to 23 games; their longest sequence without defeat at Anfield since a 32-game streak from February 2008 to March 2009.
Before kick-off Klopp glared intently at Stoke’s warm-up drills. Whether it influenced his team talk or not, his side did not initially seem prepared for the visitors’ direct approach which yielded the opening goal.
Ragnar Klavan and Sadio Mane both missed chances to clear and the latter’s weak header was seized upon by Erik Pieters on the left flank.
The Dutch full-back’s cross to the near post picked out Walters and the Irishman stole a yard on Dejan Lovren, who was not tight enough to his man, and glanced a header which Simon Mignolet got a hand on but was unable to keep out.
Walters, an Evertonian, savoured his sixth goal against Liverpool with a wild celebration in front of the Stoke fans packed in the Anfield Road End.
Moments later, the Potters missed a glorious chance to notch a second when the impressive Joe Allen, on his Anfield return, muscled his way into the box and saw a low effort blocked by Mignolet’s feet with fellow former red Peter Crouch a whisker away from passing the ball into the empty net.
It left the hosts rattled. The home side’s defence were at sixes and sevens, Lovren all over the place while Klopp grew tetchier.
Slowly but surely, though, Liverpool regained their confidence; passes which had looked overcomplicated started to find their intended recipients as the cogs began to whirr and click more smoothly.
By the time they reached half-time the engine on the red machine was purring again.
Divock Origi sent Mane scampering away just after the half hour and his low cross found Adam Lallana, who saw his initial effort blocked only for Glen Johnson’s poor touch to allow him a second bite of the cherry. Lallana calmly stroke the ball into the net to take his tally to seven league goals for the season — in addition to his six assists.
Liverpool were buzzing again; and they seized the upper hand a minute before the interval.
Neat build-up play involving Lallana and James Milner on the edge of the penalty area culminated with a pass to Roberto Firmino who, afforded time to pick his spot, hit a low shot which struck both posts before spinning over the line.
A couple more shifts through the gears were required after the break as Klopp’s side quickly put the match to bed.
On the hour Origi sent a teasing ball into the penalty area intended for Mane and Giannelli Imbula guided it past Lee Grant into his own net.
Klopp introduced Daniel Sturridge with 20 minutes left and the striker ended a Premier League goal drought which had stretched back 248 days and had lasted 656 minutes following a late Christmas present by Ryan Shawcross.
The Stoke centre-back played a casual back pass for Grant only for Sturridge to intercept, round the Stoke goalkeeper and slot into an empty net.
It was the 100th league goal of the Klopp era — in just 48 matches. There are plenty more to come.
Mignolet 6; Clyne 6, Lovren 5, Klavan 6, Milner 7; Henderson 7, Wijnaldum 6, Lallana 8 (Can 69; 6); Mane 8, Firmino 7 (Moreno 79; 6), Origi 7 (Sturridge 79; 7)
Substitutes not used:
Karius, Lucas, Ejaria, Woodburn.
Stoke City (4-3-1-2):
Grant 6; Johnson 5, Shawcross 5, Martins Indi 6, Pieters 7; Diouf 5 (Afellay 75; 5), Whelan 6 (Ramadan 66; 5), Imbula 5; Allen 8; Walters 7, Crouch 7 (Bony 84; 6)
Substitutes not used:
Given, Adam, Shaqiri, Bojan.
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