Liverpool 1 Stoke City 0

Liverpoolhad the bravery of defender Glen Johnson to thank for a hard earned victory at apacked Anfield over a resolute Stoke side, to slightly ease the pressure thathas been building on both the team in general and manager Brendan Rodgers in particularafter three straight league losses previously. A challenging November has seenthem close to Champions League elimination (they now need to beat Basel intheir last group game to proceed) and stuttering so much in the league, thatbefore Stoke’s arrival on Merseyside they had fallen to a miserable twelfthplace in the league, a dramatic fall from grace after being runners-up lastseason.

Yesterday’s 1-0 result was a lesson in pragmatism as the win was allthat mattered, with the team needing to steady the ship before they can even considera return to the cavalier style that characterised last term’s matches. It tookthem until five minutes from time for the breakthrough to be made, as RickieLambert leapt well to head against the bar and Johnson was first to react as hethrew his head into defenders feet to nod the rebound home.

Johnsonis another who has been criticised recently and seems to have lost his spotinternationally (at least for now) to Nathaniel Clyne of Southampton (amongothers). A clean sheet for his team and a goal for himself will have pleasedhim greatly, even if he has a mild headache for his troubles.

Muchwas made of captain, Steven Gerrard’s omission from the starting line-up, asRodgers decided to freshen things up after his skipper had played back to backmatches last weekend and mid-week in Bulgaria. At 34, age is starting to limitthe Reds’ legend in terms of his playing time somewhat, but it was still asurprise after starting every league game since New Year’s Day (and then it wasdue to injury).

Rodgers had claimed he was unaware that the game marked the 16thanniversary of Gerrard’s debut for the famous club, but that probably wouldhave had no impact on his decision as he tries to shuffle the pack to eke outresults and prays that Daniel Sturridge will return to action sooner ratherthan later. Without his firepower and pace up front, the side do not frightensides this season, hence “plan b” with Lambert the focal point up front atpresent.

Thegame itself was devoid of much excitement in a largely tepid first-half, withthe home side starting promisingly but then letting the pace drop in 45 minuteswithout a clear chance for either side.

Afterthe break Mark Hughes’ side sensed an opportunity to claim the win themselves, twicegoing close through the lively Bojan Krkic as he first struck the post and thenlater brought out a wonderful save from keeper Simon Mignolet in the dyingseconds. Earlier they had also looked likely to end the deadlock when Bojan putMame Biram Diouf in on goal, but Mignolet was once more the Reds’ saviour.

Liverpoolhad chances of their own to take the lead prior to Johnson’s late strike, withJordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling both narrowly missing the target, before aflowing move ended in a disappointing finish from Brazilian Lucas.

As the gameentered the final quarter, Joe Allen should have scored after good approach playby Sterling, but he saw his effort sail over the bar as Liverpool fans wereabout to celebrate.

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

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