Sunday, March 18, 2012
Stoke undone by dynamic duo
Richard Jolly, Anfield
Kenny Dalglish's innate, instinctive reaction is to defend his charges, whatever the accusations levelled against them. He can appear especially touchy when the players in question are his signings. But even those accustomed to a defiant Dalglish forming a protective shield in front of an under-fire footballer were taken aback by the Scot's January justification of Stewart Downing's recruitment when he said: "He is better than what I thought he was."
To some, the question was: just how bad did you think he was? To others, it was a statement that damaged the manager's credibility; loyalty blinding Dalglish to wider faults. Yet stubbornness has its merits and the Liverpool manager's obduracy brought a reward as, at the 35th time of asking, Downing made a decisive intervention. A couple of hours after a £50 million forward - the former Liverpool striker Fernando Torres - ended a drought, a £20 million man delivered. It was a day for expensive underachievers to hit the target.
The winger's winner booked Liverpool's return to Wembley in the FA Cup semi-finals and was taken with the sort of aplomb that might be expected of one of the most expensive players in Anfield history. "It's not the first time he's done that," said Dalglish. Indeed, it was the second, but the other, the fifth goal in a rout of Oldham, was little more than a technicality. This was different. This mattered.
When Downing collected a flick from Steven Gerrard that constituted a return pass, powered into the penalty area and hammered a shot past Thomas Sorensen, it secured a Wembley date with either Sunderland or Everton. "Stewart is a really good player, with a good turn of pace and a really good left foot as he showed there," Dalglish insisted. "He's done us proud."
That was being generous. While the strike was a sizeable step in the right direction, it will take more than one game or one goal to justify such a huge fee. There have been legitimate reasons to have a downer on Downing, whose wait for either a goal or an assist in the league has spanned eight months since his signing.
Pressure seems part of the problem. Downing has underachieved in each of three most stressful seasons: the year his hometown club, Middlesbrough, were relegated and after becoming a big-money signing for both Aston Villa and Liverpool.
There is something about the £20 million mark - or fees that could rise that high, depending upon add-ons - that seems to exert a hex at Anfield. It has affected Alberto Aquilani, Robbie Keane and Jordan Henderson, even if the departed duo merit some sympathy. Only the costlier Torres and the coruscating Luis Suarez have seemed immune.
Indeed, after he declared his willingness to extend his stay on Merseyside, the latter broke the deadlock. Having played a one-two with Maxi Rodriguez, Suarez whipped a shot into the bottom corner of Thomas Sorensen's net. "A little bit of magic," said the beaten manager, Tony Pulis.
He provided Liverpool's spark, orbiting around Andy Carroll with manic energy and exerting a magnetism. The ball finds him, the cameras focus on him, and the controversy revolves around him. Suarez's goal was the sort to invite questions why he does not score more often; the swift, direct running, plus the placement and power of the shot scarcely suggested it was only his 11th of the season.
In fact, he is tied with a former Liverpool striker as Peter Crouch scored Stoke's equaliser. It was a tale of beanpole strikers past and present, Crouch evading Carroll, his supposed marker, to head in Matthew Etherington's corner while Liverpool felt Ryan Shotton obstructed Pepe Reina. "The goalkeeper was fouled," Dalglish insisted.
Impeded the Spaniard may have been, but his team-mates were not hindered. This is a schizophrenic season, where they trail Manchester United in the league but may lift more silverware than the other 19 top-flight clubs between them.
The Carling Cup is already in the Anfield trophy cabinet; the FA Cup could join it, making a 42nd major honour. While typically determined Stoke side tried to halt the class of 2012, the fans decided not to compete with Liverpool's illustrious past. "The Autoglass Trophy, we won it two times," the self-deprecating Potters chorused.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Luis Suarez - A second fine performance in five days from the Uruguayan who, as he can be, was irrepressible. Stoke will be glad to see the back of him: he has scored three goals against them this season. Suarez limped off near the end and Liverpool will assess his fitness before Wednesday's trip to QPR.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: It was a scrappy game but they showed the spirit required to withstand Stoke's late offensive. Despite the pressure at the end, Reina had comparatively little to do. That reflects well on Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher, in particular. The football, as Dalglish admitted, was not the best but he said: "It was a fantastic performance with the way they competed and put their bodies on the line." One of those bodies, Martin Kelly, was also among the hurt. With Glen Johnson out, Liverpool must hope it is not too serious.
STOKE VERDICT: Despite the stereotype, they actually played the neater football for some of the first half and had the chance to take the lead when Jonathan Walters broke clear and shot wide. Despite the disappointment of their exit, Pulis branded their marathon season "groundbreaking". With a third consecutive FA Cup quarter-final place and their longest run in Europe behind them, attention now turns to securing a maiden top-half finish in the Premier League.