Liverpool prove title credentials before City showdown
Guardiola given food for thought after Klopp’s men hit back to crush Potters
Watching at Anfield from under the brim of a Baker-boy hat, Pep Guardiola made a rare trip into enemy territory to see for himself what his old Bundesliga rival, Jurgen Klopp, is building at Liverpool, ahead of their next big meeting on New Year's Eve.
Liverpool 4 Stoke City 1
Having watched his team come from a goal behind to demolish Stoke City, even Klopp seemed surprised that Guardiola turned up in person on a bone-chilling night, four days before Manchester City come to Anfield for one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the season so far. Liverpool go into their final match game of 2016 six places behind Chelsea at the top but ahead of their opponents Manchester City who occupy third place, one point behind.
The two managers last faced each other in April 2015 in the German Cup semi-final which went to penalties whereupon Guardiola's Bayern Munich conspired to miss all four of theirs and Klopp's Borussia Dortmund went on to the final.
On this occasion, Klopp said that he had been sent a text message from the club's sporting director, Michael Edwards, to let him know Guardiola was in the stadium, which seemed to prick the imagination of the Liverpool manager.
"I'm not sure that he [Guardiola] watched a lot of games in the last few weeks in other stadiums of opponents," Klopp said.
"That is a first sign it is a special game and we are already looking forward to it. It is a difficult game for both teams but exciting and the best thing is that it is at Anfield. They are an outstanding side, we are not too bad, so it will be a nice game."
He joked that scouting opposition teams in person was no easy task because of the constant requests for autographs.
"Hopefully we had no security and Pep had to write all these autographs. Whatever I say tonight we cannot win the game but maybe I could say a few things that could make it more difficult. It is probably best I shut my mouth."
In fact it was a game that attracted many of the great and good including the England manager Gareth Southgate, David Moyes and Steven Gerrard among others and Guardiola will be back on Saturday to try to find a way to beat a Liverpool side who have won their last three.
Having fallen behind to Jonathan Walters' 12th-minute header, they picked off Stoke quite comfortably.
There was a first league goal of the season for Daniel Sturridge, on as a second-half substitute and pressing a claim to start against City, one of his former clubs, ahead of Divock Origi whose cross was turned into his own goal by Giannelli Imbula for Liverpool's third.
Adam Lallana had claimed the equaliser. The second came from Roberto Firmino, whom Klopp said he never considered leaving out after his drink-driving charge.
There were errors of varying degrees of seriousness from the Stoke defence in all four of the goals Liverpool scored, although Mark Hughes's team started brightly. He gave Peter Crouch just his second start of the league season and the 35-year-old responded well in attack alongside Walters.
The plan was to give Stoke a direct route out from behind the famous Klopp pressing game and for the first part of the first half it worked well.
Hughes played three central defenders, four in midfield and Joe Allen behind the two strikers, a move the Stoke manager later suggested few had done at Anfield this season. The Welsh playmaker was excellent in the early stages and Stoke's persistence down Liverpool's flanks paid off.
The attack began when Mame Biram Diouf crossed from the right and Crouch attacked the ball. When it broke free, Sadio Mane failed to control it, Erik Pieters recycled the ball on the right and Walters headed the cross in at the near post. Simon Mignolet got a hand to it and the Liverpool goalkeeper might well look back with regret on his failure to keep it out.
Liverpool only got going round the mid-point of the half when Crouch kicked a shot from Firmino off the line. Then, on 35 minutes, Liverpool switched the ball out to Mane on the right wing and for the first time he had the space to run at Bruno Martins Indi.
The Liverpool man's pace gave him the space to cross and when Lallana's first touch was poor, the ball was inexplicably returned to him by Glen Johnson, one of three former Liverpool players in the away side, and Lallana scored.
The second goal came from Stoke's failure to put any pressure on Firmino, who, just before half-time, was allowed to turn on the ball and hit a shot that struck both posts before rolling in.
Firmino's court date for his Christmas drink-driving charge is January 31, the Tuesday when Chelsea come to Anfield for what is shaping up to be another crucial game in the title race.
Stoke rallied briefly at the beginning of the second half but the collapse after that was fairly comprehensive.
They lost their concentration defensively for the third goal when Imbula's clearance fell to Jordan Henderson and he spread the ball wide to Origi. The Liverpool striker's cross was turned into the Stoke goal by Imbula, as he tried to make up for his original error.
Sturridge scored the fourth having been on the pitch just two minutes, given the ball by a dreadful back-pass from Ryan Shawcross which the striker took around goalkeeper Lee Grant and finished.
Guardiola most likely slipped away after that having seen enough, and he will know that only a very good team will be able to come to Anfield before the end of May and expect to win. (© Daily Telegraph, London)