Liverpool stoke fire of big New Year Man City duel with 4-1 demolition of Stoke
It is fair to say that when Manchester City visit Anfield on New Year's Eve, the challenge posed to Liverpool's defence by Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero, if he's recalled by Pep Guardiola, will be a bit different to the one here where the names involved for Stoke were Peter Crouch, Jonathan Walters and Mame Diouf.
And yet for Liverpool - in front of a watching Guardiola - it proved to be the ideal warm-up for the most significant league fixture to be held at Anfield this season, largely because their evening was relatively comfortable, the last half-hour was played at practice speed and no injuries were suffered.
The Reds have reacted well over the last seven days to Chelsea twice moving nine points ahead of them at the top of the Premier League table, instantly reducing that lead to six with contrasting wins in their next games.
If Liverpool had to find a way to claw away three points from Goodison Park in the Merseyside derby, the narrative of this story displayed other qualities because they had to find a way to respond to Stoke's early lead and recover. Ultimately, the final 4-1 scoreline was reflective of Pool's dominance and the margin of victory shows once again what they can do when the momentum is with them.
Liverpool, indeed, were unbeaten in 22 games at Anfield and Stoke were the last team to win here. That result came last January, though it was an occasion which ended in disappointment for the Potters because Liverpool ended up progressing from the League Cup semi-final second-leg tie on penalties.
Like on that night, Mark Hughes deemed it necessary to insert Crouch, aged 35, into his team. He started for only the second time in the league and his and Walters' mission in attack was not particularly scientific: to try and unsettle Liverpool's supposed soft defensive underbelly.
Crouch's inclusion from the start was legitimised because of his role in Stoke's opener, thudded in by Walters. Crouch's presence in the box required two markers and in the confusion after his downward header from Diouf's cross was half-cleared by Ragnar Klavan, Liverpool were not alert enough in the second phase of play.
Sadio Mane didn't get close to Erik Pieters before he supplied a delivery into the danger zone. From there, Dejan Lovren was unable to stop Walters' run across him and then Simon Mignolet was flat-footed as the flick that followed zoomed off his right hand and inside the post.
Crouch's value was soon felt at the other end, clearing off the line when it seemed as though Roberto Firmino had equalised. Liverpool's leveller eventually came just as it began to feel as though Stoke had quelled any threat coming their way and the Reds had Glen Johnson to thank for the opportunity. The former Liverpool right-back's reaction to Adam Lallana's initial shot was neither a control nor a clearance and it allowed the England midfielder to sweep in his seventh of the season.
Suddenly, Liverpool possessed the confidence that makes them so dangerous. Had all of their chances been converted, the outcome would have been settled by half-time. Instead, it was 2-1; Liverpool's lead coming when Johnson and Ryan Shawcross decided to retreat as Firmino prepared to release a shot which bounced off both posts before slithering across the line.
By the hour mark, it was 3-1. Though it was largely a consequence of Jordan Henderson's crisp pass to Divock Origi, Stoke again had themselves to blame to some extent. None of their defenders had tracked Mane's in-field sprint and that meant Giannelli Imbula had to chase him from a deep position. The Frenchman managed to reach Origi's cross before Mane but slid the ball into his own net.
Many of the questions about Liverpool's title credentials relate to the depth of their squad. At the moment, Jurgen Klopp can call upon Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can as subs. Sturridge had been on the pitch for less than 30 seconds when he made it 4-1, seizing upon Shawcross' backpass to round Lee Grant.
And that was that.
LIVERPOOL: Mignolet, Clyne, Lovren, Klavan, Milner, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Lallana (Can, 69 mins), Mane 7, Origi 7 (Sturridge, 69 mins), Firmino (Moreno, 78 mins). Unused subs: Karius, Moreno, Lucas, Ejaria, Woodburn
STOKE : Grant, Johnson, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Diouf, Whelan (Sohbi, 67mins), Imbula, PIeters, Allen, Walters, Crouch (Bony, 84 mins). Unused subs: Given, Bony, Afellay, Adam, Shaquiri, Bojan, Sobhi.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Man of the match: Roberto Firmino
Match rating: 7/10