Liverpool and Torres unable to break Stoke defensive mould
Liverpool 0 Stoke City 0
Given the euphoria that had greeted victory over Manchester United only a week ago, it must have been disturbing to Liverpool supporters to watch their side revert to old failings so quickly. Missed opportunities, particularly at home, hampered their progress in the autumn period of last season, so this was a frustratingly familiar experience.
Indeed, Stoke achieved an exact copy of the result Birmingham City secured at Anfield on last year's corresponding weekend, and by the same, unashamedly defensive methods. Rafa Benitez, the Liverpool manager, tried to argue that this was somehow different but his post-match analysis followed last year's text almost to the letter.
"We tried to the end but we did not have the space or ideas to break them down," he said after Birmingham had presented their impenetrable barrier. The verdict this time – "we tried everything but with all the players inside the box it is impossible to create clear chances" – told much the same story.
There was one important difference – Fernando Torres, whose predatory skills Birmingham were spared for the first hour of their siege, was on the field from the start on Saturday, although his presence achieved little except to draw further attention to his current struggle for form.
It would be easy, in the circumstances, for Benitez to blame the Spaniard's troubles on fatigue or lack of fitness, particularly after his recent hamstring injury. Yet he was keen to make neither factor an excuse, suggesting instead that Torres needs to hone his renowned killer instinct even more sharply, so that even the most determinedly negative opponent cannot escape.
"Every player needs more time when he comes back from a tournament a month late and physically Fernando needs to improve but today it was not a physical problem," Benitez said. "Today it was more difficult because he had less space. They were on top of him all the time so it's difficult to have space for control.
"Today if Torres, [Steven] Gerrard, [Robbie] Keane or Xabi [Alonso] had a bit more time or accuracy we could be talking about two or three goals."
Yet Benitez might not have been discussing Torres – nor Keane's continuing wait for a first Liverpool goal – had an arguably legitimate score not been denied his team in only the second minute, when Gerrard's free-kick sailed into the Stoke net only for the referee Andre Marriner, prompted by his assistant's raised flag, to cut short the captain's celebration of what he thought was his 100th goal for the club.
The decision infuriated Benitez and amused Tony Pulis, his Stoke counterpart, who was only too willing to accept it as "the bit of luck we knew we'd need" to pull off an unlikely result. Mostly, it highlighted the need, with television replays able only to suggest that Torres, moving across Thomas Sorenson's sightlines, might have been marginally offside, for officials to be available to explain their actions.
Yet the Liverpool manager, to his credit, ultimately buried his anger. And he aimed no criticism at Stoke, even though their performance lacked any attacking ambition.
"I want to be clear," he said. "I am not happy because we had a lot of attempts and plenty of possession and should have scored another goal.
"Stoke had a plan and it worked for them because we did not score. I don't think they are bad for the Premier League. You have to accept their tactics and try to be better."
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Dossena; Kuyt, Gerrard, Alonso, Riera (Babel, 65); Keane (Benayoun, 73), Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Agger, Mascherano, Leiva Lucas, Degen.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Sorensen; Griffin, Abdoulaye Faye, Sonko (Cort, 22), Higginbotham; Lawrence (Cresswell, 66), Olofinjana, Diao, Delap; Kitson (Fuller ,78), Sidibe. Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Whelan, Tonge, Wilkinson.
Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).
Booked: Liverpool Skrtel; Stoke Fuller.
Man of the match: Diao.