29 May 2017, Edition - 685, Monday
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Sports

Liverpool sink Stoke City to go second after Adam Lallana sparks recovery

theguardian.com

It was routine in the end, perfect preparation for Manchester City’s visit on New Year’s Eve and another reminder to Chelsea and the watching Pep Guardiola that Liverpool will remain in their company for some time to come. But there was more to an ultimately comfortable victory over Stoke City than a further demonstration of the ruthless efficiency that Jürgen Klopp has created at Anfield. It took confidence under pressure and absolute faith in their methods for Liverpool to stage an emphatic recovery.

When Daniel Sturridge rounded the goalkeeper Lee Grant and rolled in his first Premier League goal since April to complete victory he also took Liverpool to 100 league goals in 48 games under Klopp. Only Kenny Dalglish reached the century in as few games as Liverpool manager. The show of strength and the range of Liverpool’s attacking threat would not have been lost on Guardiola, whose presence in the main stand Klopp took as a mark of respect from a fellow contender.

But it was unmistakable how the home team had toiled against Stoke’s direct approach and two-man attack until Adam Lallana equalised Jonathan Walters’ early goal and how, even when unsettled, Liverpool never lost their belief or ability to hurt their opponents. Stoke’s generosity was boundless, with individual errors contributing to all Liverpool goals, and Klopp had the options at his disposal to ensure there would be no first managerial win at Anfield for Mark Hughes or top-flight league win here for his team. Roberto Firmino, his place never in doubt according to Klopp despite being arrested for drink driving on Christmas Eve, and an own goal from Giannelli Imbula joined Lallana and Sturridge in completing the recovery.

Hughes believed Stoke had the players and the gameplan to hurt Liverpool and so it proved when they took the lead from their first period of sustained possession and continued to trouble the home defence until Lallana levelled in the 35th minute. Peter Crouch, deployed as the obvious outlet against his former club, headed Mame Diouf’s cross goalwards and, though Ragnar Klavan hooked clear, Sadio Mané was slow to react to the second ball. Erik Pieters easily won their aerial challenge and delivered an inviting left-wing cross to the near post where Walters arrived ahead of Dejan Lovren. The Republic of Ireland international and boyhood Evertonian steered a glancing header beyond Simon Mignolet at his near post. Mignolet got a hand to the ball but was unable to redirect its path.

Joe Allen, who prospered in the first half on his return to Anfield, almost doubled the visitors’ lead when Jordan Henderson and Lovren failed to clear and he weaved his way into the area and shot low towards the far corner. Mignolet produced a vital save with his foot, the ball spun away from Crouch lurking in front of an open goal to Walters, and his follow‑up was blocked by Klavan. Stoke would have other opportunities on the counterattack but none as clear as that key moment. Liverpool heeded the warning and were ruthless once they awoke.

Henderson and Lallana went close, Firmino closer still when he reacted quickest to a Ryan Shawcross clearance and beat Grant with a low drive that Crouch cleared on the line. The pressure was growing but Stoke had defended well until a lapse by Glen Johnson offered Klopp’s team a way back in. Divock Origi produced a fine piece of centre-forward play to shield possession under pressure then spray the ball out to Mané on the right. His cross was met with a heavy touch by Lallana but, instead of clearing for a corner, Johnson miscontrolled and invited the England international – being watched by the national manager Gareth Southgate – to slip a clinical finish inside Grant’s near post from a tight angle. The pattern for the rest of the game had been set.

Firmino edged Liverpool ahead moments when he collected James Milner’s pass inside the area and found himself with time and space to pick his shot, despite Allen, Johnson and Shawcross being in proximity. The Brazil international produced a fine finish that kissed the inside of both posts before crossing the goal-line. Stoke complained to the referee Michael Oliver that play should have been halted with Mané lying injured in an offside position. He was neither interfering with play or responsible for the weak defending that continued unabated in the second half.

Any hopes Stoke harboured of a point were destroyed when Imbula started and finished a flowing move. Unfortunately for the visiting midfielder it came at the wrong end of the pitch. His poor header, under no pressure, gave possession to Henderson who unlocked the Stoke rearguard with a fine pass inside Johnson to Origi. The Belgium international crossed low and hard and the recovering Imbula converted into his own net under pressure from Mané.

Sturridge delivered Liverpool’s fourth 56 seconds after replacing Origi and thanks to a careless back-pass from Shawcross. The Stoke captain never looked up as he played Johnson’s square ball straight into the feet of Sturridge, who ended his uncharacteristic recent drought in the Premier League. The stage is set nicely for City’s visit on Saturday.

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