x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Torres and Co are beginning to hit the strides for Liverpool

'Crisis' has been replaced as the applicable C word by consolidation, climbing the table and confidence. There is even a sense of calm.

Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s striker, seems to have returned to form.
Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s striker, seems to have returned to form.

"Crisis" has been replaced as the applicable C word by consolidation, climbing the table and confidence. There is even a sense of calm. What a difference three weeks have made.

With ownership battles and the relegation zone both consigned to their past, Liverpool even occupied fifth place for a time on Wednesday night, before Wigan Athletic's equaliser deprived them of a fourth-successive league win.

Fernando Torres, with four goals in those four games, is again looking the razor-sharp striker of defenders' nightmares, Steven Gerrard is as dominant a midfield force as the Premier League possesses and Roy Hodgson has a new-found legitimacy as Liverpool manager.

As a man who seems to regard all criticism as overly harsh and most praise as dangerously close to hyperbole, Hodgson is an advocate of remaining on an even keel. In that sense, an underwhelming second half at the DW Stadium may have helped his cause.

Now Liverpool go from one of the Premier League's quietest grounds to officially its loudest. At the Britannia Stadium, the blend of a febrile atmosphere, an abrasive style of play and a marked sense of injustice combine to form an explosive cocktail.

With Stoke still railing at refereeing errors, their natural relish for upsetting more fancied and fashionable sides is exacerbated by the feeling the elite get preferential treatment. They provide a different challenge to a much-improved Liverpool defence today.

"Stoke are a very strong and aggressive team. They play very physical football," said Martin Skrtel, the centre-back.

Their ability to bypass the midfield, coupled with the excellent delivery of Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington from either flank, means it is an examination of central defenders' mettle.

And, in their third season in the top flight, their not-so-secret weapon retains its potency. Every time Rory Delap's whirling arms propel the ball from the touchline into the penalty area, opponents remain imperilled.

"It's not easy defending a long throw, so we have to be careful and work together with Pepe [Reina]," said Skrtel, who assumes a pivotal role today. "We'll be very close to our goal, so we have to stay close to their players and try to clear space for Pepe to get it. Then he has to try to catch the ball."

This is a fixture with special requirements. One that, two years ago, saw one of Sami Hyypia's last resilient displays in a Liverpool shirt after he was summoned especially for the game. Now the onus is on Skrtel.

Stoke provide a test Manchester United passed only because of a commanding display by Nemanja Vidic at one end and the finishing of Javier Hernandez at the other.

Trial by long throw represents an assessment of Liverpool's new-found unity as well as Hodgson's ability to plan for unique events.

Crisis is no longer the appropriate word at Liverpool; it is character and courage that they require today.

sports@thenational.ae

9.30pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 3