Liverpool-Stoke City Verdict: Win Pulls Reds Back From Brink Of Abyss

Glen Johnson and Asmir Begovic Liverpool Stoke CityAll was looking bleak for Liverpool until Glen Johnson put himself in harm’s way.

Liverpool was toiling toward a disappointing draw — or worse — against Stoke City in the Premier League on Saturday when Johnson became the unlikely hero of the moment. Johnson’s late, game-winning goal gave Liverpool a much-needed victory and ended the Reds’ painful seven-game winless streak (in all competitions).

Liverpool’s floundering performances appeared to reach their low point at halftime Saturday, as the injury Stoke City midfielder Steve Sidwell suffered halfway through the opening period was the only noteworthy aspect of a dreadful first-half showing from the teams.

Early groans of frustration gave way to silent despair at Anfield, as the home crowd faced the prospect of another setback in a season of setbacks. The Reds retreated further into themselves for 45 minutes but roared back to life after the break. Stoke City, the game and fans responded in kind.

“I felt we just needed to up the speed of our game a little bit, move the ball a little bit quicker and look to press the game a little bit higher up the field,” Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said in his postgame press conference, according to “I thought in the first half we had enough of the ball, but lacked a little bit of intensity, which is understandable because the confidence of the team isn’t at the top yet.”

The teams traded goal-scoring chances (and squandered opportunities) throughout the open and entertaining second half, but the breakthrough didn’t come from one of the usual suspects. Instead, Johnson, who hadn’t scored in the Premier League since December 2012, provided the much-needed release in the 85th minute. The Liverpool fullback bravely dove into the goal-mouth and headed a rebound past goalkeeper Asmir Begovic. Johnson paid the price, as Stoke City defender Erik Peters accidentally kicked him in the head, causing a gash that required stitches and staples to close.

It actually is fitting that Johnson was the improbable hero on this day. Rodgers selected a lineup full of veterans and tasked them with stopping Liverpool’s slide. Rodgers slotted Kolo Toure and Jose Enrique into the back line and used Lucas Leiva as shield for the defense. While Liverpool earned its third shutout (in 25 games) of the season, the Reds’ defense still was far from suffocating.

Stoke City forward Bojan Krkic twice hit the post. Raheem Sterling saved Mame Diouf’s attempt off the goal line, and Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet made a couple of key saves in an otherwise unassuring performance. Stoke City had its chances to win but failed to capitalize on them.

Liverpool controlled possession throughout but didn’t threaten Begovic’s goal until the second half. Sterling’s speed, skill and pinpoint passing drove the Reds forward, but Lucas and Joe Allen lacked the composure in front of goal required to turn their second-half opportunities into goals.

Liverpool had been grinded for 75 goal-less minutes when Steven Gerrard entered the game and lifted the crowd. Anfield denziens lifted their heroes in turn, providing them with the emotional spring-board needed to edge Stoke City in the end. Johnson, who has endured both injury and criticism this season, finished the job.

The Reds were far from their swashbuckling best against Stoke City, but their physical exertion, tactical discipline and mental fortitude return to expected levels for the first time in weeks. The three aspects are a good starting point for any true resurgence Liverpool hopes to mount in 2014-15.

Glen Johnson seals win with diving header (video) >>

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