Stoke City 3 Liverpool 1: It’s not the despair but the hope which makes supporting Liverpool such an agony in the Brendan Rodgers era.
Although defeat in the Potteries is pretty standard fare – the side have never won here in the Premier League era – the season is turning into a bumpy rollercoaster ride. A heavy defeat at home against Aston Villa, followed by the best yet for Rodgers at Fulham and now this: a pummelling at the hands of a Stoke side for whom Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Walters led a vulnerable central defence a merry dance. For Stoke, who leapfrog Liverpool, there is a happy consistency of nine games unbeaten in the league, 16 at the Britannia, with their first three-goal haul in the league for 13 months, for good measure.
In the beginning, it seemed like Luis Suarez – whose contribution was outstanding again, despite the discomfort of a swollen ankle which he has been playing through for two weeks – would shape the night. It took him only 35 seconds to wriggle out of the grasp of Ryan Shawcross, who could get no closer than clutching at his shirt. The way Suarez then fell forward onto to the turf looked like simulation – he was being pulled by Shawcross, not pushed – but there really could be no complaints. Even Tony Pulis – who said he felt central defenders Shawcross and Robert Huth had been "off it" at Suarez's hands – could not criticise Suarez, as he did after his conduct at Anfield earlier this season. "Ryan was caught square and at fault but Suarez did brilliant," he said. Steven Gerrard despatched the penalty.
But Stoke never looked back from that point and some classic football of their type asked serious questions about the standard of Liverpool's basic preparations. It was not as if they did not know about the aerial challenge which undid them three times. "Everyone knows, every coach, every manager understands, the strengths of Stoke," Rodgers admitted. There was an element of misfortune about the first, as Martin Skrtel slipped to allow Walters to shape comfortably and score, but that did not forgive Daniel Agger – for whom this was a very poor night – dropping so deep that Shawcross' fifth-minute punt looping over him for Jones to head into Walters' path.
The second goal – Jones getting ahead of Agger to head Glenn Whelan's corner past Pepe Reina and beyond the despairing effort of Glen Johnson – was the poorest from a Liverpool perspective. Aside from Suarez, Gerrard and fleetingly Stewart Downing, Rodgers' players were simply bullied into defeat. Starting the game with Suso, who was withdrawn for Raheem Sterling at half time, looked as questionable a decision as resting Joe Allen, the kind of player this game needed. "It's not all about football," said Rodgers, admitting his side lacked character. "You've got to earn the right to play, especially coming here. We have big character and players but tonight it was not too easy."
Pulis did have a big character in Walters, whose second – Stoke's third – was of the highest technical order. Jones supplied again, flicking Andy Wilkinson's long throw into the path of Walters – an Everton fan – whose sublime chest and volley sealed the win. The Stoke manager's ambitions are crystal clear. "Forty points as quick as we can and then we will look at it," he declared. The Liverpool picture is less discernible. Sunday's visit to Queen's Park Rangers could prompt more top-four talk or leave their manager back on the outskirts of a crisis. Defeat at Loftus Road and Rodgers' record will be worse than Roy Hodgson's at the same distance into his Anfield career.