Thursday 23 March 2017

Walters penalty silences sloppy Liverpool

After a start to the season in which they went top of the table for the first time in two years, there had been growing talk of Liverpool having developed into genuine title contenders. But at a ground which has consistently proved to be a graveyard of success for the club came the feeling that even at this earliest of stages, their championship hopes may just have died a little.

It is now four Premier League fixtures out of four without victory for Liverpool at the Britannia Stadium, with this the team's second defeat in succession here, and while their most recent performance was encouraging for large spells -- in no way as poor as that which led to a 2-0 defeat last season for what was then Roy Hodgson's team -- the visitors played with a wastefulness that suggests that for all the progress made under Kenny Dalglish since replacing Hodgson, they yet lack the killer instinct to challenge the likely trio of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea.

Not that Dalglish sees it like that. The Scot was left in a rage by proceedings here, claiming afterwards that it was the referee, Mark Clattenburg, who ultimately sealed his team's first defeat of the season by awarding Stoke the penalty from which Jonathan Walters scored this game's only goal after 21 minutes and then denying Liverpool one of their own on 90 minutes when Matthew Upson appeared to block a right-sided cross from Luis Suarez with his hands as he slid onto the turf. The Scot hinted later of a conspiracy against his side and said he was contemplating speaking to Liverpool's American owners about how to deal with the issue.

"We would like to be respectful to the referees but more importantly is them having respect for my football club and if I feel we're suffering in any way, shape or form then I may need to go the same route as some other people go and see if I can gain some benefit from that," warned the Liverpool manager, cryptically.

Deep into second-half stoppage time Suarez wasted arguably the visitors best opportunity of the afternoon when, having been perfectly placed to seize on Asmir Begovic's failure to catch Charlie Adam's straight cross, the Uruguayan poked his resulting shot wide of an empty net. He is human after all.

That effort was Liverpool's 20th of the game and summed up their general dominance of this fixture. The visitors did not threaten too greatly, even after Andy Carroll and the returning Craig Bellamy came on as substitutes after 67 minutes. This was the third match in a row that Carroll has started on Liverpool's bench, and while Dalglish continues to defend the £35m striker, he still appears reluctant to fully trust in the 22-year-old. Following this defeat, however, Carroll may just sense that he could return to the Liverpool starting line-up for next week's visit away to Tottenham at White Hart Lane.

Such matters will not concern Stoke after their fifth win of the season and fourth league game without defeat. The focus prior to kick-off had been on Peter Crouch following his £10m move from Tottenham on deadline day but his was a relatively quiet performance against one of the 30-year-old's former sides. Instead it was Crouch's strike partner, Walters, who shone on a windy day in the Potteries, capping an energetic and robust performance with his first league goal of the season which he created himself after running at Jamie Carragher, forcing the defender to haul him to the turf.

For Stoke there now comes a historic first match in the Europa League group stages; away to Dynamo Kiev on Thursday. For Liverpool, there are regrets and a lingering sense of fury regarding what could have been. A league title could still come their way this season but for that to happen, a club reborn may well need something else special to come their way. The impending return of captain Steven Gerrard cannot come soon enough.

Observer

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