Club Focus – Stoke City – Heroic Potters put Liverpool to the sword

It had been 26 years since Stoke City last beat Liverpool. In spite of a reasonable record against the Reds since promotion, the task of taking three points from the Anfield giants had continued to prove just beyond Tony Pulis’ side. Saturday evening saw those demons finally exorcised however, as the Potters turned in their finest performance of the season so far to convincingly vanquish their illustrious opponents. The Staffordshire side had been in the relegation zone when the game kicked off, but the result has launched them up to 10th place – one rung above Liverpool – such is the nature of this tight campaign.

The battling, harrying qualities that had deserted the team in recent weeks returned in droves as the Potters looked for the win from the first whistle. The performance of the front two was a significant factor in Stoke’s victory, with both Kenwyne Jones and Ricardo Fuller getting on the score sheet. It was a return to form for Jones after his recent barren spell. In addition to the cool finish that made the game safe, he turned in a disciplined display, winning the majority of his aerial duels with Martin Skrtel and performing important defensive duties in his own area at set pieces. Fuller, meanwhile, has certainly scored more spectacular goals than the effort scuffed past Pepe Reina with his trailing leg, but a goal was no more than his action-packed showing deserved in constantly pressuring the Reds’ rearguard.

Stoke’s defence has been their Achilles heel in recent weeks, but the return of Ryan Shawcross from suspension, coupled with Andy Wilkinson’s restoration to the starting line up, saw a dramatic improvement. Wilkinson’s selection at right-back allowed Robert Huth to move inside to his favoured central position, giving the back four a more balanced look. Defending crosses coming into the area has been a particular problem for Stoke this season, but with Huth and Shawcross in the centre, rather than the declining Abdoulaye Faye (who missed this game through injury) and Danny Higginbotham, the Potters dealt comfortably with everything that Liverpool could throw at them.

The star of the show, however, was Dean Whitehead. The former Sunderland midfielder was key in maintaining the game’s frenetic pace, which suited the home side far more than Roy Hodgson’s men. Whitehead never allowed Liverpool’s midfielders a moment to settle on the ball, and forced Steven Gerrard deeper and deeper, preventing him from asking questions of the Stoke defence. Whitehead is often criticised for his poor touch and passing, but here he showed a marked improvement, in both switching the play well and looking to find the wide men as often as possible.

Life looks a lot healthier for the Potteries outfit than it did this time last week, but now is no time to be complacent, with games against West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City on the horizon. Stoke have long been the Baggies’ bogey side, but the men from the Hawthorns look to be an altogether tougher proposition these days under the guidance of Roberto Di Matteo. However, if Stoke can consistently turn in the quality of performance shown against Liverpool, they should have little to fear from anybody.

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