Johnson winner boosts Liverpool
Glen Johnson ensured Steven Gerrard's demotion to the substitutes' bench became a secondary talking point as the full-back proved the unlikely match-winner as Liverpool stumbled to a 1-0 Barclays Premier League win.
The England defender scored with a stooping 85th-minute header to end a three-match losing streak in the top flight in a laboured and often aimless performance.
Manager Brendan Rodgers claimed his struggling side had turned a corner in their season with a 2-2 draw against Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets in midweek after opting for more substance and less style in his team selection.
On the basis of this performance it had merely led them into a cul-de-sac as even the restoration of Philippe Coutinho in the number 10 role at the expense of Gerrard failed to produce any spark or creativity.
Rodgers insists sentiment plays no part in his decision-making so even the 16th anniversary of the midfielder's debut, when he came off the bench as a late substitute at Blackburn, made no difference to him.
The Reds boss said in midweek Gerrard could not play three matches in a week at the level he and his captain wanted so after 90 minutes against Crystal Palace and Ludogorets it was almost inevitable the 34-year-old was rested.
It was the first time he had not started a Premier League match since the visit of Hull on New Year's Day when he was out injured.
Rodgers' team contained just one of his seven summer signings - Divock Origi is on loan at Lille and Mario Balotelli is injured - and five of the 21 players he has brought in at a cost of £215million since he took over in June 2012.
Gerrard took his place on the bench among £85million-worth of talent recruited in the last window and was forced to watch the most turgid halves of football at Anfield since the short-lived reign of Roy Hodgson.
It was not much of an exaggeration to suggest the only incident worthy of a mention was the early substitution of Steve Sidwell through injury, only for his replacement Glenn Whelan to be taken off at half-time for former Reds midfielder Charlie Adam.
Rickie Lambert, on the back of two goals in his last two appearances, found himself on free-kick duty but he drilled one high into the Anfield Road end and defender Martin Skrtel did similarly from a corner.
Stoke could have conceded a penalty had referee Craig Pawson, who made a number of odd decisions and allowed many fouls to go unpunished, not allowed Erik Pieters' charge into the back of Lucas Leiva to go unpunished.
Things improved in the second half but, again, it did not require much.
Jordan Henderson, captain for the day, smashed a left-foot volley just wide before Simon Mignolet, under increased scrutiny after a string of unconvincing performances and a blunder in midweek, made the first save of the match when he denied Mame Biram Diouf after he was released by Bojan Krkic.
That was after 55 minutes and while that did not signal a shift up the gears for the home side Bojan beating cracking a shot against Mignolet's right-hand post finally had the desired effect.
Raheem Sterling, Liverpool's brightest attacking threat, fired across goal and wide of the far post before sliding a pass through to Lucas, possibly the worst of his midfield options faced with a one-on-one with the goalkeeper and the Brazilian fired straight at Asmir Begovic.
Lambert also side-footed straight at the Bosnia international before Sterling, again, created his side's best chance with a cut-back to Joe Allen eight yards out which the Wales midfielder smashed against the crossbar.
Stoke were defending grimly and Pawson waved away more penalty claims when Coutinho ran into Ryan Shawcross before Rodgers sent for Gerrard with 15 minutes to go.
Mignolet, keeping only his third clean sheet in 25 appearances and Liverpool's first in seven games, produced a brilliant save to deny Diouf at close range from a corner before Liverpool snatched a winner five minutes from time.
Henderson's quality cross was met with a powerful header by Lambert and when the ball bounced down off the crossbar Johnson was fastest to react, charging in to plant a low header into the net and injuring himself in the process.
Liverpool could have done without the added seven minutes as a result and a nervous Anfield reserved some of its biggest cheers for a Kolo Toure hoof downfield and a solid catch by Mignolet as Stoke pressed for an equaliser.