THE least to be said for Liverpool is that the words ‘throw-in’ and ‘towel’ belonged to Stoke City and not them.
It’s like a Chinese laundry down on the Britannia Stadium touchlines, where every ballboy has some fluffy linen for Stoke’s players to dry off the ball before launching it – a ludicrous advantage to the home side, which should be stopped. The very sight of Stoke – only three of their starting XI under 6ft – might have been enough to haveLiverpoolchuckitallin,too,though the events of Saturday lunchtime demonstrate that if nothing else Rafael Benitez’s men have some starch, too.
The problem is that “nothing else” pretty much describes the rest of their offering. Optimists might view a draw at this inhospitable place as something valuable but Stoke are not as uncompromising as they once were – a less than convincing Manchester United strolled through them three months ago and there has been one league win in eight. Liverpool were also limited to only half an hour of Rory Delap, who had hurled three dry and dangerous footballs into their area in the first 11 minutes, before limping off.
The unvarnished truth is that Liverpool offered next to nothing and blended in all too well to a mid-table scrap. That the men in black should have not have held the lead provided by Sotirios Kyrgiakos’ first Liverpool goal adds to that impression that they are doomed; doomed to a loser’s luck and to being punched down again and again, just when a thin shaft of light seems discernible down the tunnel.
The one player who shone through the mist which gradually enveloped the place wore fluorescent yellow. Pepe Reina, still receiving treatment to a back injury on Saturday morning and playing in discomfort, single handedly repelled the aerial bombardment which was launched at the end. Then his left-back, Emiliano Insua, deserted the back post and allowed Robert Huth a free strike at Danny Higginbotham’s header on 90 minutes. In four of their last eight fixtures Liverpool have conceded goals in the 90th minute or later and it was extraordinary to hear Benitez suggest the latest lapse was somehow justified. “There are 20 balls into the box every single minute so it is not easy to defend,” he said.
The manager was left clutching at a rather thin straw of refereeing injustice, too. Lee Mason should have awarded a penalty for Higginbotham’s 26th-minute hack at Lucas Leiva. “They have people (referees’ assessors) who are in charge and they have to decide when they have seen the performance of the referee,” said Benitez. “It’s like me dealing with a player. If a player makes a mistake then you put them on the bench.”
It was an unfortunate comparison, given Benitez’s mystifying reluctance to give Alberto Aquilani consecutive games, with a £20m signing’s flair so obviously needed in a game when the first save from either goalkeeper was Reina’s on 76 minutes.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Sorenson, Higginbotham, Faye (Wilkinson, 26), Shawcross, Huth; Etherington, Diao, Whitehead, Delap (Lawrence, 24); Tuncay, Sidibe (Fuller, 66). Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Whelan, Pugh, Collins.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Insua; Lucas, Mascherano; Degen (Rodriguez, 78), Kuyt, Aurelio; Ngog (Aquilani, 87). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Riera, Spearing, Darby, Pacheco.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).
Booked: Stoke Diao; Liverpool Reina, Lucas.
Man of the match: Reina.