Try as it might, Liverpool could not solve the puzzle that was the dogged and determined Stoke City defense. The Reds suffered their first EPL loss in a game from which they will be disappointed not to have taken at least one point.
Irish international Jonathan Walters won and then converted the 21st minute penalty, which stood as the difference between the teams. Midfielder Jordan Henderson and Luis Suarez will regret the chances they failed to convert.
Liverpool lost ground on EPL pacesetters Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. Unbeaten Stoke sits in fourth, looking down the standings at the Reds.
Stoke City's Britannia Stadium is a difficult place for opposing teams to play and LFC has not won there since November 2000. The Potters are known for their rugged and aggressive game — especially against stronger opposition. Manager Tony Pulis fielded an organized and committed unit that implemented his plan to his exact specifications.
The Reds looked like they might catch their hosts off guard when Suarez had two early chances on goal. He failed to hit the target on both, but it was an encouraging start.
Walters' goal came against the run of play, as he ran onto a not-too-dangerous looking long ball over the top. He drew contact with LFC stand in-Captain Jamie Carragher, but when the veteran defender wrapped his arm around him, the Irish attacker went to the ground. The referee whistled for a penalty, which Walters calmly converted.
"At the time I thought their penalty was harsh." Carragher said after the game. "I haven't seen it again and will need to have a look before I make a judgment. It might have been or it might not have been."
Stoke refocused on protecting the lead, even at the expense of enterprise and entertainment. For the rest of the match, the hosts seemed content to barely mount an attack. The £10 million ($15.9 million) signing Peter Crouch made a minimal impact in the rest of the game.
Stoke's 24 year-old Bosnian goalkeeper Asmir Begovic was only tested once in the first half, but he became the game's key performer after the break.
Having controlled the game for much of the first half, Liverpool raised the tempo in the second and was more threatening as a result. The Reds managed to break through the Stoke defense on a number of occasions, but Begovic matched them all with a near-perfect performance in the net.
Luis Enrique sent Henderson in alone on goal in the 61st minute with a through pass over the top, but the young midfielder hit two rather tame shots that Begovic blocked. Charlie Adam's first follow-up effort was blocked by Stoke defender Marc Wilson, and the goalkeeper sprang to his feet to save Adam's second.
Stoke sat deeper as the game progressed and Liverpool was not able to turn their advantage in both position and possession into an equalizer. The over-reliance on crosses from wide channels played into the hands of the hosts. With four tall central defenders starting in the backline, the Stoke defense was comfortable heading Liverpool's crosses away time and time again.
It was only during extra time where it looked like LFC might find the equalizer.
Suarez was again the protagonist, first (in the 91st minute) when his attempted cutback pass was intercepted by the arm of sliding defender Matthew Upson. The referee missed the infraction and Suarez was furious.
"Going off what the lads have said, they are adamant we should have had a penalty," said Carragher. "I was too far away to see. But we have had one go against us and a couple not go for us today, so we are a bit aggrieved."
Four minutes later, Suarez was on the receiving end of Begovic's only error. The goalkeeper's attempted punch fell to the Uruguayan, who was standing close to goal. He surprisingly volleyed the shot wide of the net, and Stoke was able to close out the final minute.
Carragher's summation of the result has the perspective of a player who has played over 700 games for club and country.
"We'll go back disappointed because we wanted to come here and get three points. We performed quite well and when you do that you normally get three points. But that's football. That's the Premier League. It was Stoke's day today, but we can be quite pleased with how we performed.”
As other clubs know well, performance doesn't always earn points. It's goals that count. Saturday, Liverpool was one short of their victorious hosts.