- Pride and devastation
I really thought I was ‘over’ feeling like this about football. The giddy highs and depths of despair that come with the game tend to be more intense when you’re growing up, and it all still feels new. By the time we reach adulthood we’ve seen it before, felt it before, it can’t quite have the same effect. The pain gets easier to shrug off, to blot out.
This feels different. It feels like the sting will take a while to salve. For the first time since possibly about France ’98, or Priestfield 2000, football gave me a genuine gutwrench. I trudged home from the pub feeling like misery itself, so God knows what it must’ve been like for the poor souls who actually made the trip to Merseyside. The next day at work I still felt under a cloud. Sad. Empty. Lousy. Football, bloody hell.
Stoke were magnificent at Anfield. Gutsy, organised, disciplined, tough, intelligent. They didn’t deserve to lose. In some ways, it might have been easier to deal with an old fashioned stuffing than to play so well, to do everything right, to come so close and then have it all snatched away just when we were starting to believe.
Stoke were superior to Liverpool on pretty much every level in this second leg. They had more shots, had the best chances, and were denied a trip to Wembley by the width of a post. Shaking up a side out on its feet during the first leg, Mark Hughes made one or two surprise selections and was rewarded with strong performances from front to back.
I suppose I’d better talk about the game. Eyebrows were raised when Peter Crouch’s lanky form appeared in the starting line-up and Xherdan Shaqiri’s bulky form was relegated to the bench. That seemed like a gamble, a reactive team on a night when we needed to seize the initiative. It was clear we were including height to take advantage of Liverpool’s weakness at set plays, but would that be enough?
The first half was a nervy affair in which both teams were prone to giving the ball back to each other and some ‘spicy’ challenges from both sides. But Stoke progressively improved, looking more and more assured, keeping the hosts at arms’ length and finding space behind the defence. Twice Jon Walters’ runs saw him free himself in the box, with his finishing letting him down. Liverpool, for their part, didn’t manage a shot on goal until the 36th minute.
For all our good play it was difficult to see the game providing a goal, but provide one it did just before half time when a well-worked Stoke counter attack saw Walters loft a beautiful path to Bojan. The wee man pushed into the box from what Nigel Johnson would call the ‘inside right channel’, before sliding a ball across for Arnautovic to pop in. The Austrian was clearly offside, but the goal stood, and frankly, we didn’t give a toss. A lucky break, but it had fallen for the better side. We made our own luck.
The second half saw a shocked Liverpool attack, Butland saving well from Firmino with one of their first attacks of the half. Stoke could still cause problems of their own though. The foreseen difficulties with aerial balls began to plague Liverpool. With Crouch the target, Liverpool’s defenders began to panic, and when everyone stopped and watched one lofted up and under, it dropped for Walters, who found the space to turn and get a shot away, only to see it blocked at the last.
The tackles continued to fly in, and any lingering Liverpudlian sense of injustice was surely extinguished by referee Jon Moss’ stubborn refusal to send off the returning John Flanagan after a series of booking-worthy fouls. There was a big cry for handball when the ball struck Erik Pieters, but it was clearly unintentional, from close range, and he had his back to goal. Nice try, la.
Having made it to extra time, Stokies watching everywhere started to get a feeling that maybe, just maybe, we might do it after all. That feeling was severely tested just after the restart, when a goalmouth scramble saw Flanagan get into a great position only to fire against his own man with Butland prone on the deck.
Charlie Adam departed, kicked out of it by Lucas. On in his stead came Marco van Ginkel, and he wasn’t far away from writing himself into Stoke City folklore. He burst into the box, prepared to pull the trigger, and everyone held their breath…only for the Dutchman to fire against the woodwork. Agonising…
Deep down, we knew that was our chance. We had to make it count in extra time. It was not to be. Most of Stoke’s penalties were actually very good, as you’d expect from a team that hasn’t lost a competitive shoot-out since 2008. But not enough of them. Peter Crouch was never a man built for penalty-taking but his palpable exhaustion meant he could barely move his leg to take his shanked spot kick. It was cruel on a man who’d given so much for the cause. The same could be said for Marc Muniesa, tremendous on his return to the side but who never looked confident as he wandered up to miss his kick. Joe Allen tidily converted the decisive sudden death kick. Our dreams turned to dust.
Ultimately we paid the price for a rotten first leg no-show that left us with a mountain to climb, and injuries that have piled up over a packed festive schedule. But on the night, we couldn’t have asked for much more from our players. It still aches, but there’s little to do but pull ourselves up and get on with it. There’s still plenty to play for.
2) The defence rises to the occasion without its leader
The biggest source of pre-match fretting was the absence of Ryan Shawcross for ‘at least three or four weeks’ following a recurrence of his back problem against Leicester. The defence had fallen to pieces in his absence at the Walker’s Stadium, and given how creaky the back line had looked with him during the first leg, the prospect of going into this game without him didn’t fill anybody with confidence.
One of the Marcs would be required to fill that chasm, and Marc Wilson’s nightmare in the East Midlands ensured that it would be Senor Muniesa who got the call. Despite having his song driven into the ground, it has been a surprisingly poor season for the young Catalan, who had looked slow, positionally dodgy and desperately short on confidence whenever called on since August.
Thrust back into the fray on a big stage, Muniesa was brilliant at Anfield, and if there’s any justice this game will be remembered not for him missing the decisive penalty, but as the first game of his renaissance. He was back to his very best, displaying all the hallmarks that before this season had him earmarked as the long-term partner for Shawcross. His timing in the air and in the tackle was impeccable and he strode out of defence with the ball like a titan. It was easily his best game for a good nine months or so.
Yet Muniesa was eclipsed by his defensive partner, Philipp Wollscheid, who had his best game in a Stoke shirt. The transformation of a player who started the season as fifth-choice centre half is unlike anything I’ve ever seen at Stoke, a genuine ugly duckling story. His footballing clairvoyance was at its height on Tuesday night, knowing what Liverpool attackers were going to do before they did. He even found a burst of pace from somewhere to go toe to toe with Benteke while shepherding the ball to safety throughout the contest. Glenn Whelan might’ve had the armband, but this was a captain’s performance.
The full backs have been troubled in recent weeks by players like Ibe, Brady, Mahrez and Albrighton, but they were much improved here; Glen Johnson always seems to have unfinished business against Liverpool and plays with a point to prove, and he again found plenty of space to cause problems in their half. Erik Pieters, meanwhile, had possibly his best game of the season, another leader at the back who always stood up strong and looked to stop the cross, while also taking his opportunities to get forward and get in some strong crosses of his own.
The back line needed to deliver and it did. In fact the whole team did. There were no shirkers. Even subs not famed for their defensive qualities like Shaqiri and Adam could be seen chasing back and putting their bodies on the line for the cause. The occasion meant to a lot to all of them.
Though the night ended in heroic defeat, it was another one in the eye for the ‘no fight’ brigade. Instead of crumbling without their leader, Stoke were like the hydra – cutting off the head of the snake only meant that more grew in his place.
3) Crouch embodies Hughes’ game plan
The selection of Peter Crouch was, no pun intended, a big call. Though he’d started every League Cup game bar the first leg of the semi, he seemed more likely to be put out to pasture than play a starring role in a game of this magnitude.
His selection appeared to set out our stall to go long as often as possible and attempt to exploit Liverpool’s aerial weaknesses, but despite the embarrassed Klopp’s protestations, there was actually more to it than that. Hughes’ plan was to stay defensively solid and afford Liverpool little space, and deploying Crouch deep as a sort of attacking pivot, with Walters as the de facto centre forward and Bojan and Arnie buzzing off him as well, gave us the best of both worlds. He acted as a sort of human tractor beam, dragging Liverpool defenders towards him and creating space for our other attackers, while his presence in our own box was a valuable one when defending set pieces.
In fact, the aerial plan didn’t quite work as well as it might’ve, as chances from dead balls were few and far between, and while Crouch won plenty of knock-downs, we rarely made hay from the second ball. But his presence and work rate were a big factor in our tidy, sturdy mix of old Stoke and new Stoke.
Exhausted after his most vigorous run out for months, he’d surely have been withdrawn for Joselu or Diouf had Mark Hughes had the opportunity in extra time. Adam’s injury put paid to that however. Credit to Crouch, even in missing his penalty, for having the stones to step up and take one despite barely being able to move by that point in proceedings.
I Wouldn’t be in a rush to see this system used again anytime soon, but Crouch put in a hell of a shift and didn’t deserve to be on the losing side. He seems like a genuinely good bloke, he’s been a very good player for this club, and a wonderful ambassador for it too.
4) Walters is (again) the unsung hero
There were numerous contenders for man of the match – Wollscheid, Muniesa, Crouch, Afellay, Pieters etc, so Jon Walters’ performance has flown under the radar a little. He was right up there among the best Stoke performers on the night.
An Evertonian who loves the chance to wind up The Reds, the number 19 was a thorn in their side all night. Yes, he missed chances, but his excellent movement was key to us creating them in the first place. He made sure to intelligently curve his run to beat the high line and the offside trap repeatedly, while his chipped pass into Bojan’s path for the goal was sublime.
You expect Jon Walters to be full of running but that almost reached self-parody in this game. There is no such thing as a lost cause to Walters, and the look of shock on Adam Lallana’s moisturised visage when Walters picked his pocket in the box to create another chance was an underrated highlight, much like Walters himself.
Despite a patchy penalty record – and missing one on this very ground two years prior – he had no qualms whatsoever about stepping up to take the first spot kick and slammed it home.
The man is irrepressible, and you wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d still been running after 120 hours, let alone minutes. His detractors will never go away, but I’m proud he represents my football team.
5) Klopp makes enemies in the Potteries
I was pleased when Jurgen Klopp finally arrived in the Premier League. I’d loved his high energy, enthralling Dortmund team and his interviews and press conferences, spiky at times though they could be, were generally witty and intelligent. Yet it’s taken just four months for his act to grow tiresome. The forced ‘passion’ of his OTT celebrations is one thing, but the constant whining and attempting to referee from the sidelines is what really takes the cake.
Perhaps it’s a trait of all managers in the very top bracket that they should be so one-eyed (myKloppia) or expect one real for them and another for everyone else (hyKlopprisy) but the Liverpool manager is starting to sound like the Wengers, Mourinhos and Fergusons. Every refusal by an opponent to just roll over and die is treated as the gravest form of cheating.
His bitching about Tony Pulis’ WBA having the audacity to deploy tactics like long balls and set pieces to take a point against his team made him look a complete fool, and Klopp was at it again after his team embarrassed him on Tuesday night, proclaiming Stoke’s performance’ ‘old Stoke‘ and deriding us for constantly going long, when that was far from a fair reflection of a performance in which The Reds were outplayed for long spells. You don’t finish the first half with 61% possession if you’re only interested in long ball.
His crying about the offside goal was similarly undermined by Flanagan being allowed to get away with murder, while his faux-amusement at not being given a penalty that clearly wasn’t one for the Pieters ‘handball’ was at best cringeworthy and at worst cynical.
Maybe he felt he had to cover for the dreadful showing of the home side, who seemed content to hold what they had and looked anaemic and sluggish throughout a game they held all the cards going into.
It’s not his job to be liked and if biased histrionics are his bag then he’s certainly found the right club.
I’ve no doubt he’ll sort Liverpool out, and good luck to him. But a man purported to be a breath of fresh air looks as if he’s going to be just like all the rest of them after all. Shame.