It was one of Jurgen Klopp’s gambles of the season and it was rewarded with one of the turnarounds of the campaign. The Liverpool manager had concluded that his two Brazilians, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, worn down by having to play international football in South America and then face the Merseyside derby, could play “no more than 30 minutes” at Stoke.
During the interval, having seen Liverpool produce one of their most anaemic halves under his management, Klopp thought they might last 45. The boys from Brazil did more than just last, scoring the goals that turned this match on its head and cemented Liverpool’s hold on the Champions League positions.
Within two minutes of each other first Coutinho and then Firmino found the net. At the final whistle, Klopp ran on to the pitch to embrace his goalscorers and Simon Mignolet, whose point-blank save ensured Liverpool left the Potteries with three points rather than one. The 2,800 who had travelled from Merseyside began singing Klopp’s name. During the interval, they had been shrugging their shoulders at their manager’s decisions.
The sense of bewilderment that came with Liverpool’s team sheet was profound. It showed Klopp had selected a bench with far more firepower than anything he had put on to the pitch. As Klopp surveyed events from the touchline, Coutinho, Firmino and Daniel Sturridge were all on the seats behind him. In front of the Liverpool manager was an attack led by Divock Origi and 17-year-old Ben Woodburn.
There had been doubts whether Coutinho, afflicted by illness, would have featured at all, but since he was on the bench he and Firmino were presumably both fit to play at least part of the match. Within minutes of them both coming on, Liverpool appeared to possess a cutting edge. Lee Grant in the Stoke goal was forced into his first saves of the match while Dejan Lovren’s header struck the crossbar.
Then came the goals that ensured Liverpool finished the day third in the Premier League, nine points ahead of Arsenal in fifth who have three games in hand. One was very good, the second was utterly spectacular.
Twenty minutes from the finish, with Liverpool pressing increasingly hard, Glenn Whelan’s weak header fell straight to the tips of Coutinho’s boots. It was not quite as spectacular as his finish in the Merseyside derby but it was good enough to equalise.
Then came one of the goals of this season. It came from a long ball from Georginio Wijnaldum that Firmino allowed to bounce once before smashing the ball past Grant for the winner.
Stoke were stung into some kind of action and should have equalised when Saido Berahino met Marko Arnautovic’s perfectly-placed low cross a few yards from goal. Mignolet saved instinctively with his thigh.
That Liverpool turned the game so spectacularly is not to belittle the two teenagers they replaced. Woodburn might have won a penalty just before Stoke scored when he was brought down by Erik Pieters in a tangle of legs just inside the area. Trent Alexander-Arnold, another graduate of the Liverpool academy, also performed well. However, by the interval, Liverpool had collectively performed so indifferently that drastic measures were called for.
Mark Hughes would argue that Stoke played well, just as they had against Manchester United and Chelsea. The sum total of those games has been a single point. Stoke have now won five matches in four months and Hughes’ mood would not have been improved by the loss of Joe Allen to a hamstring injury midway through the first half.
It was a 45 minutes that should have produced more than one goal for the home side. It came from a cross by Xherdan Shaqiri that allowed Jonathan Walters to head home from three yards. Walters was born on Merseyside and brought up as an Everton fan. This was his seventh league goal against Liverpool – as many as Robin van Persie and Alan Shearer. His day, however, was not to get much better.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Grant; Johnson, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Pieters; Shaqiri, Allen (Adam 27, Ramadan 81), Cameron, Aranutovic; Walters (Whelan 68), Berahino.
Subs not used: Given, Muniesa, Diouf, Crouch.
Liverpool (3-5-2): Mignolet; Lovren, Matip, Klavan; Alexander-Arnold (Coutinho 45), Milner, Can, Wijnaldum, Clyne; Woodburn (Firmino 45), Origi (Sturridge 68).
Substitutes: Karius, Grujic, Moreno, Lucas.
Referee: Mike Dean.