Belief grows as Reds end Britannia hoodoo
Stoke City 3 Liverpool 5
So often Liverpool have left Stoke with nothing more than a chill and misery. There was a furnace inside the Britannia Stadium as they celebrated their first Premier League win at the venue -- partially due to the controversial manner of a breathless victory -- but also because their Champions League aspirations burn more radiantly as a result.
The second half of the season is full of what we deem symbolic fixtures; those games you'll mark on the calendar as the most serious examination of title, Champions League or survival credentials.
For Liverpool, the red marker pen always highlights the away trip to Stoke, before writing it out again in capital letters and underlining just to stress the point.
Liverpool have waited 30 years to leave this city in possession of three points. Being annually outmuscled, outrun, outkicked (and out-thrown) tended to hasten a period of soul searching at Anfield, so it's no wonder Brendan Rodgers was declaring this one of his most satisfactory successes of the season.
It was a flawed win, but compared to the unbearable grimness of Liverpool's most recent performances and results here, the temptation has to be to linger on the attacking ferocity that brought five goals rather than defensive unease that earlier lost a two-goal lead.
Rodgers never needs much encouragement to dwell on positives, so there was ample supply. Luis Suarez scored twice and revived his partnership with Daniel Sturridge, who returned from an ankle injury with an exceptional cameo during which he created the Uruguayan's second and added a final, nerve-easing goal.
Raheem Sterling maintained his resurgence with the kind of trickery and directness that earned him a rapid promotion from youth football two years ago.
On the basis of his performance, the England teenager should have been applauded off at full-time, but instead found himself jeered for his role in the game's controversial detail.
Referee Anthony Taylor's decision to award a 51st penalty for Marc Wilson's challenge on Sterling was the most significant of several turning points.
Mark Hughes argued the contentious penalty was a momentum shift too far after his side recovered from two goals down and you can forgive his angst in the circumstances. Sterling accepted an invitation to hit the deck, but there was enough contact to justify the decision. A more reasonable grievance was whether the Liverpool winger handled Wilson's clearance in the build-up.
Before this detonation, it seemed Liverpool's Champions League credentials were about to be undermined by a former players' association as Peter Crouch and Charlie Adam cancelled out a two goal lead. Rodgers' side gave themselves the platform to potentially cruise to victory thanks to Aly Cissokho and Suarez, only for the ex-Anfield pair to score twice in the six minutes before half-time.
For all the attacking brilliance, the ineptitude of the defending -- Liverpool's back four and goalkeeper looked anxious under pressure -- also contributed to the goal bonanza. Crouch hit the post with a late header and forced Mignolet into several saves. If the Belgian has enjoyed better afternoons, spare a thought for Jack Butland on his Premier League debut -- a harrowing experience.
Liverpool led early thanks to generous Stoke defending, Cissokho's ambitious blast from 20 yards deflecting off Ryan Shawcross to wrong-foot Butland.
When Suarez tapped in a second on 32 minutes after a mix-up between Wilson, Butland and Shawcross, it seemed Liverpool were in for a rare afternoon of serenity in Staffordshire.
Not so. Crouch shook off Kolo Toure too easily to head in Marko Arnautovic's cross on 39 minutes, before Adam took advantage of Henderson's loose pass to slam home a lethal left footer. Both the former Kop boys were subdued in their celebrations.
Sterling's intervention enabled Gerrard to restore the visitors' lead from the penalty spot, before substitute Sturridge's penetrative run and perfectly weighted pass to Suarez restored a two-goal cushion.
Jon Walters offered hope of another comeback as Mignolet somehow allowed a tame strike through his legs, but Sturridge stretched to meet Suarez's cross, seizing on his own rebounded effort to drill in his 12th of the season. If they'd carried on for another 10 minutes, there would have been another four goals.
At a club where statistics are analysed with a religious zeal, the Suarez and Sturridge strike rate will turn sceptics into believers.
Now they're even beating their bogeymen, evidence is mounting Liverpool can achieve something more than acclaim for their style of football and stay in the top four. (© Daily Telegraph, London)