I would challenge the most ardent and optimistic of Stoke City supporters to admit that they predicted eight goals would have been scored at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday, 12th January, 2014. The team has shown in fits and starts that they are capable of taking a game to the opposition, but this trait was lost for the majority of the game against now-fourth placed Liverpool. What it was replaced by was a desire to stay in the game, which became most evident with Stoke’s last goal, showing a fire in the players and supporters alike that Stoke City is not a team that will go down without a fight. Teams of the past have sometimes been guilty of lowering their heads in preparation of the inevitable onslaught to come. At 2-0 down due to an unfortunate own goal and poor defending from Ryan Shawcross and Marc Wilson, it would have been no surprise to see the pattern of holding on for dear life to maintain.
What appeared surprising regarding the comeback was not that it happened, but who instigated it. Marko Arnautovic, who had been having a poor game up until this point, floated a cross into the box, where Peter Crouch could just place enough power, pace and accuracy on it to deceive Simon Mignolet and get Stoke back into the game. Critics of Crouch would state that four goals from eighteen games is a poor return, but it can be argued that he is scoring more goals than he did at his previous club, Tottenham Hotspur. In his two seasons at Spurs he scored 8 and 4 league goals from 38 and 34 appearances. In his first two seasons at Stoke he scored 10 and 7 league goals from 32 and 34 appearances. In both of his seasons at Stoke he has improved on his seasons at Spurs. Whilst the lack of goals in general is still a concern, perhaps Crouch is not all to blame for not being able to put the onion in the bag.
Perhaps refereeing injustices are to blame. Anthony Taylor admitted after the match that he felt that Raheem Sterling had conned him into giving a penalty to Liverpool, whilst Martin Atkinson has in recent weeks placed a target on his head should he enter the Potteries in the forthcoming weeks for his poor display at Newcastle. Whilst the referees have been poor though, perhaps the players response at times to these decisions have not been the best. At times after the penalty to Liverpool, Stoke were all over the place defensively, going into fouls with a bit of blood and thunder rather than due to necessity. Ryan Shawcross conceded a foul shortly after the penalty which I felt needed to be given just to get Ryan’s head back on the game. He had by this point conceded an own goal, been at fault for not clearing a bad back-pass quick enough, and had seen a penalty go against his team. Of course he would be rattled. Whilst it didn’t improve his game, perhaps being at fault for Liverpool’s fourth goal as he was sucked into Daniel Sturridge’s movements rather than tracking the run of Luis Suarez, Shawcross did not make any more silly decisions of note.
Sandwiched between Liverpool’s fourth and fifth was a scruffy finish from Jonathan Walters, a goal he was fortunate to get regarding the finish, but one he deserved due to the criticism he sometimes receives. It is not hard to understand why he receives it regarding his goal tally, with only 2 goals in all competitions this season. His supporters might argue that he plays like former Liverpool player Dirk Kuyt, working tirelessly all over the pitch at perhaps his own detriment, yet if you tell him to stay in position up front, he can score you goals. His deployment on the wing this season, plus Mark Hughes decision not to refer to him when discussing his striking options, suggests that Walters has been told to worry less about his goal output and perhaps more on his defensive duties. Against Liverpool I think he had a bad game in this respect, which is where I am glad that he got his goal, meaning that even if he failed with his main objective, he still contributed to the game. Geoff Cameron’s runs forward this season have created more work for Jon Walters as he has to create the right balance between attack and defence.
If he is ahead of Geoff in an attack, he makes a run to support it. If he is behind him, he drops into the space that has been left by Cameron’s run. By and large this season I feel that Walters has done his job in supporting Cameron, but in this game I feel Mark Hughes was perhaps at fault in playing him against Aly Cissokho. A new-comer still to the Premier League, perhaps unleashing Arnautovic and Cameron on him, whilst placing Walters on the opposite wing to track Glen Johnson may have been a more prudent option. Overall, the decision matters little as Liverpool were in control for large parts of the game, especially in the second half when two goals ahead. Sturridge’s goal to make the score 3-5 made the game comfortable for them again and despite a few set-pieces causing problems, they saw the game out. Based on this performance, I would still argue that they are worthy of a top-four place, perhaps even a top-two position, on the condition that the luck that they received in this game remains for the rest of the season. Rarely will a team play Stoke and score five goals, let alone four goals which were from poor defensive decisions or plain bad luck. The priority for Stoke now, to maintain their push for the top ten rather than the bottom three is to get three points this weekend. No problem, right?
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