In a week when Liverpool eviscerated Roma at Anfield they failed to find the net against Paul Lambert's strugglers
High-flying Mohamed Salah and Liverpool draw a blank against relegation-threatened Stoke City
There has been one magical occasion at Anfield in the last week. Suffice to say that it was not Saturday.
Lacking relentless drama, brilliant attacking or wonderful goals, a stalemate with Stoke City was the antithesis of the 5-2 demolition of Roma. “I saw everything I wanted to see except fluency and fun and joy,” Jurgen Klopp said. Yet the reasons some games are so unforgettable is because they are hard to replicate.
And Liverpool couldn’t stage a repeat. Roma, the conquerors of Barcelona, suffered in a 35-minute five-goal salvo. Stoke arrived at Anfield with the Premier League’s most porous defence and departed with a clean sheet. “It was not the best day of my life but I had for sure worse days,” added Klopp.
His side could have lost the Premier League’s only undefeated home record, Ryan Shawcross poking a shot past an unguarded net when Mame Biram Diouf hooked the ball across the face of goal. Instead, Stoke are still yet to taste victory in 55 top-flight trips to Anfield and a laudable point may prove insufficient for a relegation-threatened team. “If the lads had played like that since the start of the season, they would be cruising in the league,” said manager Paul Lambert.
Curiously, such imperilled sides have shown a capacity to frustrate Liverpool. Potential Uefa Champions League winners have failed to beat West Bromwich Albion and Stoke on successive Saturdays. Yet this was not the side that will face Roma in Wednesday’s second leg. Klopp made five changes, with Sadio Mane’s thigh injury meaning he adopted a watching brief. “Sadio will be fine,” confirmed his manager, but Liverpool were disjointed without him. “We had to make changes, that is always a bit of a rhythm breaker in the final third. Everything is instinct between the regulars, and we missed a bit of that.”
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Other absentees also had a pertinence. Klopp is so short of fit midfielders that this game felt defined by right-backs deployed further forward. Trent Alexander-Arnold started in midfield. Nathaniel Clyne came on as a right winger. They mustered Liverpool’s only two legitimate shots on target, Alexander-Arnold drawing Jack Butland’s only difficult save when set up by Mohamed Salah. A further 18 efforts were off target, while an offside Danny Ings had a goal disallowed.
And yet this was that rarity, a day when a player touted as the world’s best failed to make a decisive impact. Salah ought to have scored inside five minutes: sent racing clear by Jordan Henderson, with a perceptive pass as Stoke appeared to err by copying Roma’s high defensive line, he opted for the now-familiar chipped finish, but it dropped wide. He whipped a free kick just past the post but this marked the first time in 2018 that he started at Anfield and did not score. His pursuit of records was temporarily postponed; he found an unlikely scourge in the shape of Stoke’s veteran left-back Erik Pieters.
“Mohamed Salah has been on fire but he was outstanding,” said Stoke manager Paul Lambert. “That was the best Erik has played under me."
Pieters’ status as Liverpool’s nemesis was confirmed when his fellow Dutchman Gini Wijnaldum’s cross struck his hand. “It looked a clear penalty,” said Liverpool captain Henderson. “It is blatant.” Referee Andre Marriner was unmoved. “It is never a penalty,” added Lambert.
“Stoke were a little lucky in some situations,” Klopp said. Liverpool’s good fortune was confined to the medical bulletins ahead of a seminal week. The sense of concern was evident at Anfield when Henderson went down after Xherdan Shaqiri caught him on the ankle. It proved a false alarm. “No one was seriously injured so we carry on,” Klopp said. Rome beckons.