LIVERPOOL endured a frustrating afternoon at Anfield as Stoke’s renowned battlers fought their way to a goalless draw.
A stalwart defensive display made it five draws in seven matches by Tony Pulis’ men, while a point will be scant consolation for Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
It could have been worse for Liverpool, who twice almost pushed the self-destruct button, but ultimately this will be viewed as another disappointment in a stop-start season.
Rodgers made eight changes from the side beaten by Udinese on Thursday, after which he called his players “lazy”, and one of his targets, Stewart Downing, was not even on the bench. On the receiving end of a kicking from their manager in midweek, Liverpool got another one at Anfield at the hands of Stoke, who took their renowned physical approach across the line of legality on plenty of occasions.
Rodgers admitted to being frustrated by the result but was full of praise for his players for standing up to a physical Stoke side - but he did not believe the visitors had been over-physical.
He added: “No – they are a bunch of big men who make it difficult for you and there is no right or wrong way to play football. What I was proud of is our young guys stood up to that.
“It was a physical game today but no complaints from us. I am obviously disappointed we didn’t win the game but I thought the attitude and application of the players was terrific. There were a lot of real positives from the game and our first clean sheet which is important.”
But if Liverpool were keen to escape the sharp edge of their manager’s tongue, they hardly helped themselves early on. Twice, goalkeeper Jose Reina attempted to pass the ball out to a midfielder; twice, Stoke scented a weakness and pounced, and twice it was only the reactions of the Spaniard which saved Liverpool.
Stoke had clearly anticipated Reina would refuse to launch the ball long, and the first time it was Nuri Sahin who conceded possession, giving Charlie Adam a chance to humiliate his former employees. The Scot advanced toward goal, but Reina was quickly out of the blocks to narrow the angle and parry the shot.
Liverpool committed the same mistake again soon afterward. This time it was Steven Nzonzi snapping into the challenge as another Reina pass went awry and Michael Kightly tried to flight the ball into the goal, but the keeper recovered to turn it over at full stretch.
Having passed up those chances, Stoke reverted to type, striking long balls and stopping their opponents by foul means as often as fair, and the game disintegrated as a spectacle.
Liverpool’s frustration increased, while the away fans chanted “You’re not famous any more”, and all there was to give the Reds fans some hope before the break was a sweeping shot by Steven Gerrard turned aside by Asmir Begovic, and a toe-poke from Daniel Agger that bounced wide.
Proper football threatened to break out in patches in the second half, as Stoke toned down their challenges, and it was Liverpool who had just about all the chances, although none were clear-cut.
First, a terrific combination between Gerrard and Luis Suarez was just thwarted. Gerrard then picked out Glen Johnson’s run with a pass of arrow-like precision, but his England team-mate, on the run, could not keep the shot down.
A run of genuine brilliance by Suarez, the most gifted person on the pitch by some distance, nearly brought a superb goal, but he just bent the shot wide of the angle.
Raheem Sterling was presented with perhaps Liverpool’s best opportunity after Agger’s driving run, but he tried to drill it inside the near post and only found the side-netting.
Suarez then showed the best and worst of his talents in the space of a couple of minutes, first with a dive in the penalty area that was embarrassingly obvious, then bursting down the right and powering a shot against the outside of a post from a tight angle.
Of the former incident, Pulis, who has previously called on the Football Association to ban players guilty of simulation, noted: “Suarez falling over in the box second half was really, really disappointing. I think that should be highlighted, as I have said before.”
The Stoke manager added: “We are pleased, we have had three draws here in five years in the Premiership so we haven’t done too bad. We just can’t get that win that we would love.”
Martin Skrtel nearly snatched a winner at the end when he hooked Joe Cole’s ball back across goal, but it dropped, agonisingly for Liverpool, the wrong side of the post. A dreary goalless draw at home will hardly provide much succour for Rodgers – and Michael Owen, missing an Anfield return due to injury, can only be thankful he was not playing.
Rodgers was again forced to bemoan Liverpool’s poor recent record at Anfield but added that only time could turn it around. He said: “This is a club that has won only two Premier League games at Anfield in this calendar year and it has been nearly a year since the club has won consecutive Premier League games, so to still get the backing of the supporters with that type of record, there’s not many clubs would give that.”