LIVERPOOL // The cost of Luis Suarez's eight-match suspension is becoming apparent. Two points went begging in a game when Liverpool had neither ambition nor incision and Stoke City possessed both organisation and determination.
Without their controversial forward, Liverpool secured a first-leg lead in the Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester City, but impotence in the attack afflicted them yesterday.
It is not that the Uruguayan, banned for racially abusing Patrice Evra, is a guarantor of goals - he should have scored far more than five in the Premier League - but he is irrepressible, forever involved, ensuring a constant supply of chances for his side and a tiring afternoon for their opponents. Without him, Liverpool lacked a cutting edge.
In one respect, it is a familiar tale. They have scored fewer league goals than Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers and, while unbeaten at home, have now drawn seven of their 11 games at Anfield. But whereas they normally lament the heroics of a visiting goalkeeper, that was no explanation yesterday. Thomas Sorensen was unoccupied for large swathes of the game, had a solitary shot to field, from Jordan Henderson, and few opportunities to enhance his reputation.
His defenders, the defiant Robert Huth in particular, did theirs no harm with a performance of admirable resolution, but it was a stalemate that said much about both teams. Spirited and solid, Stoke showed why they are in the upper half of the Premier League. Unable to fashion a breakthrough, Liverpool indicated why they are outside the top four.
"On the day we weren't good enough," Dalglish said. "They came to go away with a point and they got a point. The responsibility is on us to be more imaginative to break them down. In a game like that you have to take your opportunities."
There were moments to sum up their failings in front of goal: when Dirk Kuyt's touch betrayed him after Steven Gerrard's pass appeared to put him clear; when Andy Carroll inadvertently blocked a goal-bound Henderson volley. There was only one gilt-edged opportunity, when Jose Enrique's cross looped up off Jonathan Woodgate. A diving Kuyt met it with his head, but missed the target. In the final few minutes, Kuyt headed into the side-netting and Martin Skrtel, via the ground, over the bar, but it scarcely qualified as a late onslaught.
"There was nothing wrong with their effort or determination," Dalglish said. Graft was apparent, but craft was lacking. Injuries have depleted his squad, but not to such an extent to explain his team selection.
The Scot has a habit of reconfiguring his team for Stoke. He deployed three central defenders at Anfield last season and revived the tactic yesterday, Sebastian Coates, who was making his first league start, and a recalled Jamie Carragher adding to the height his side possessed in a game when an aerial attack was anticipated. It never materialised, leaving the three centre-backs marking one forward, Peter Crouch.
The beanpole striker was a 2005 recruit at Anfield. His modern-day equivalent, Carroll, was demoted to the bench, in a significant switch.
Even with Suarez suspended and Craig Bellamy, whose fragile knees mean he rarely starts two games in a week, on the bench, he still did not start. When called upon, Carroll's contribution largely entailed a series of optimistic pleas for penalties. Howard Webb, the referee, lectured players about holding in the box without pointing to the spot.
"It's difficult to comprehend," Dalglish said. Not unsurprisingly, Tony Pulis disagreed. "Some referees might have buckled," the Stoke manager said. "Thankfully, Howard is experienced enough and strong enough not to."
He did not appear unduly worried by Liverpool's frequent appeals. "I think it was more out of desperation," he said.
While his side scarcely threatened, a solo run and stinging shot from Matthew Etherington apart, their defensive efforts pleased their manager.
"We're delighted," Pulis said. "The effort and the commitment the players put in was fantastic.
"That's four points off Liverpool, two clean sheets and that's a great achievement for us. Thomas Sorensen has not made save after save after save."
Indeed, the goalkeeper, who was cautioned for time-wasting, need not have bothered. He appeared troubled most not by a shot but from a low cross, delivered by Skrtel, that evaded both him and the advancing Charlie Adam.
Both were the joint top scorers of the side selected, with two league goals to their credit. It is a statistic that highlights Liverpool's troubles. They may not ease for a while, either. Suarez is still missing for another four games.
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