LIVERPOOL, England — Three quick thoughts from Anfield as Liverpool overturned an early 1-0 deficit to beat Stoke 4-1…
1. Liverpool win to match their rivals
There is often a disadvantage in playing last. Liverpool had to watch Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City win on Boxing Day, dropping from second place to third without kicking a ball and threatening to fall to fourth when they did. But having trailed, they triumphed. A 4-1 win against Stoke took them back to second in the table and took their tally of league goals under Jurgen Klopp to 100: not bad considering the German has only been in charge for 14 months.
They should also take some satisfaction from the landmark goal, simply because Daniel Sturridge scored it. The fit-again forward helped supply Sadio Mane’s Merseyside derby winner eight days earlier. On Tuesday night, his predatory powers were evident as he lurked behind the Stoke defence, anticipating Ryan Shawcross’ bad back pass and finding the net 56 seconds after coming on and eight months since his last league goal.
Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino had scored earlier, which along with Giannelli Imbula’s own goal had all but secured an 11th victory in 15 league games. That is a sign of the pace Liverpool are setting in their title tilt.
As Stoke have not won at Anfield in the league since 1959 and Mark Hughes has made 11 league visits as a manager without securing a victory, the outcome may have been predictable. Yet it scarcely felt that way when Stoke deservedly led in a first half when Liverpool were below par, only to play with increasing intensity and take an advantage by the interval.
Once they went ahead, there was no stopping them. And while this was not their finest display of the season, it is auspicious that they can score four goals without hitting top gear. Liverpool were being watched by Pep Guardiola, Saturday’s opponent in the final Premier League game of 2016. Man City’s visit should be some game.
2. Lallana, Firmino compensate for Coutinho’s absence
Tuesday’s victory may prove to be Liverpool’s last match before Philippe Coutinho returns from his ankle injury. Regardless of whether the Brazilian is back on Saturday, Klopp has shown a reluctance to use his talisman’s absence as a reason for underachievement. He won the Bundesliga twice despite losing Mario Gotze for a large chunk of one season and Shinji Kagawa for much of another.
In such circumstances, he wants others to compensate and more than most, Lallana has risen to the challenge of ensuring Coutinho is not missed. His equaliser was his fourth goal in as many games and showed his sharpness: when his first touch rebounded rather fortunately back off Glen Johnson, his second was a sharp shot from an awkward angle. A player who used to flit in and out of games is becoming more productive and Lallana’s season has now yielded seven goals and six assists; he’s been involved in more goals this season than any other Premier League midfielder.
In contrast, Firmino’s goals had arguably dried up while his fellow Brazilian was sidelined, partly because he lost his striking berth to Divock Origi in the ensuing reshuffle. So when he angled an effort in off both posts, it was a first goal in seven games. Yet, just as he had in last week’s Merseyside derby, he grew in influence after an inconspicuous start.
Sadio Mane was credited with the third by the PA announcer, though Imbula got the final touch to Origi’s dangerous cross. Yet the involvement of another attacking midfielder was significant nonetheless.
It is the Liverpool way to share the goals around. Each of the other title contenders has a top scorer, whether Diego Costa, Alexis Sanchez or Sergio Aguero, with more goals than any of Klopp’s charges. Yet perhaps no squad has so many players with a genuine chance of getting 10 league goals. It may prove their trump card.
3. Walters strikes as Stoke go direct
A few years ago, it would have been deemed a classic Stoke goal. A cross swung, a forceful header, a triumph for brawn and bulk. When Jonathan Walters (an Everton fan) connected with Erik Pieters’ fine centre to put the Potters ahead, it actually showed a change of thought from Hughes.
The City manager had tried to outplay and outpass Liverpool in the first leg of last season’s League Cup semifinal, playing a false nine and a host of diminutive creators. Come the second leg, there was a radically different approach. Peter Crouch started and while he rarely begins games against anyone else, Hughes continues to select the giant against Liverpool. They have struggled to deal with tall strikers in recent years and in the absence of Joel Matip, the first half suggested that the Reds’ weakness remains.
Crouch played well in the semifinal at Anfield last season but missed a penalty in the subsequent shootout. He was picked again at Anfield in April. Though Stoke lost 4-1 then, Hughes reprised that tactic as the 35-year-old made just his second league start of the season.
The physical Walters is another who figures in Hughes’ blueprint against Liverpool. Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri, the technical talents and the faces of the “new Stoke,” sat on the bench as City adopted a direct approach.
Their twin target men had an effect at either end, too. Walters scored, only Stoke’s second goal in 11 league trips to Anfield. Crouch provided another unlikely moment, clearing a Firmino shot off the line.
He wasn’t the only Anfield alumnus in the Stoke side, either. On his first return to his former employers, Joe Allen played in the No. 10 position, a role he could never be granted for Liverpool. He had greater licence to break forward and came close to doubling Stoke’s lead, denied by former teammate Simon Mignolet who pushed his low shot to safety. It proved a turning point as Stoke, and Crouch, suffered another 4-1 defeat at Anfield.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.