Liverpool 1 Stoke City 0

Liverpool had the bravery of defender Glen Johnson to thank for a hard earned victory at a packed Anfield over a resolute Stoke side, to slightly ease the pressure that has been building on both the team in general and manager Brendan Rodgers in particular after three straight league losses previously. A challenging November has seen them close to Champions League elimination (they now need to beat Basel in their last group game to proceed) and stuttering so much in the league, that before Stoke’s arrival on Merseyside they had fallen to a miserable twelfth place in the league, a dramatic fall from grace after being runners-up last season. Yesterday’s 1-0 result was a lesson in pragmatism as the win was all that mattered, with the team needing to steady the ship before they can even consider a return to the cavalier style that characterised last term’s matches. It took them until five minutes from time for the breakthrough to be made, as Rickie Lambert leapt well to head against the bar and Johnson was first to react as he threw his head into defenders feet to nod the rebound home.

Johnson is another who has been criticised recently and seems to have lost his spot internationally (at least for now) to Nathaniel Clyne of Southampton (among others). A clean sheet for his team and a goal for himself will have pleased him greatly, even if he has a mild headache for his troubles.

Much was made of captain, Steven Gerrard’s omission from the starting line-up, as Rodgers decided to freshen things up after his skipper had played back to back matches last weekend and mid-week in Bulgaria. At 34, age is starting to limit the Reds’ legend in terms of his playing time somewhat, but it was still a surprise after starting every league game since New Year’s Day (and then it was due to injury). Rodgers had claimed he was unaware that the game marked the 16th anniversary of Gerrard’s debut for the famous club, but that probably would have had no impact on his decision as he tries to shuffle the pack to eke out results and prays that Daniel Sturridge will return to action sooner rather than later. Without his firepower and pace up front, the side do not frighten sides this season, hence “plan b” with Lambert the focal point up front at present.

The game itself was devoid of much excitement in a largely tepid first-half, with the home side starting promisingly but then letting the pace drop in 45 minutes without a clear chance for either side.

After the break Mark Hughes’ side sensed an opportunity to claim the win themselves, twice going close through the lively Bojan Krkic as he first struck the post and then later brought out a wonderful save from keeper Simon Mignolet in the dying seconds. Earlier they had also looked likely to end the deadlock when Bojan put Mame Biram Diouf in on goal, but Mignolet was once more the Reds’ saviour.

Liverpool had chances of their own to take the lead prior to Johnson’s late strike, with Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling both narrowly missing the target, before a flowing move ended in a disappointing finish from Brazilian Lucas. As the game entered the final quarter, Joe Allen should have scored after good approach play by Sterling, but he saw his effort sail over the bar as Liverpool fans were about to celebrate.

Just as it seemed that the stalemate would never be broken, Gerrard was finally released from the bench with just fifteen minutes left on the clock. He was unable to galvanise his team immediately though, as Stoke had another chance from a corner which needed an alert Sterling to clear Diouf’s shot off the line with his chest.

It all worked out in the end though, as minutes later Johnson scored the winner after Gerrard’s cross had found target man Lambert’s head and a prevailing sense of relief swept around the ground. Liverpool will now hope to build on the win in their next game on Tuesday night, away to Leicester City.

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