Liverpool vs. Stoke City, FA Cup: 6 Things We Learned as Reds Return to Wembley
Stoke pushed Liverpool hard for an hour or so, but after taking the lead for the second time, Liverpool were strong enough to hold on and dominate much of the game.
Luis Suarez's sublime opener was the high point of a first half littered with wasteful passing and niggly fouls, but Peter Crouch rapidly equalised from a wrongly-awarded corner.
It was left to Stewart Downing to be the Reds' slightly unlikely hero, as he ran onto his own pass and crashed the ball into the net to send his side through into their second domestic cup semifinal of the season.
Here are six things we learned about Liverpool in their win over Stoke.
Luis Suarez Loves Scoring Against Stoke City
In a little under 14 months at the club, Luis Suarez has now netted on four occasions against Stoke City, a side who are meant to make life hell for the more technical and wily forwards of the Premier League.
After scoring against the Potters on his Liverpool debut last season, Suarez netted a brace against them in the League Cup earlier this term.
In the FA Cup quarterfinal, he steered a magnificent finish beyond Thomas Sorensen to open the scoring at Anfield, earning the wrath of the away support once more.
As ever, the Uruguayan received staunch backing from his own supporters, who delighted in his fine strike from distance.
Assistant Officiating Once Again Leaves Plenty to Be Desired
The referee of the match between Liverpool and Stoke City was Kevin Friend.
While he had a fairly "usual" performance level—that is to say giving plenty of decisions to irk either set of supporters without making any obvious howlers—the same could not be said of his two assistants.
For the Stoke City equaliser, a corner kick was given though the ball had clearly come off the head of an away player, with no Red shirt even close to making contact.
From the resulting set piece, Peter Crouch headed in the equaliser.
Shortly afterwards at the other end, Luis Suarez was dispossessed by Ryan Shawcross, with the ball altering it's course by 90 degrees. Despite this, the assistant flagged for a goal kick instead of a clear corner to the home side.
Since Liverpool went on to win the game, neither will cause much long-term concern, but the standard of officiating continues to be below the required level, with particular emphasis on decisions such as that not to allow QPR's obviously-over-the-line "goal" against Bolton a couple of weeks ago.
Stewart Downing Continues His Rise in Form
Though still arguably not at his best level, Liverpool winger Stewart Downing continued his recent upturn in form with another good display.
Starting on the right, he initially found it difficult to deliver telling crosses, needing to cut back constantly on his left foot before trying to beat his man.
In the second half, the movement ahead of him was better, and Liverpool were able to utilise space with more efficiency, allowing Downing to drive forward with the ball at his feet. This culminated in his slightly-fortuitous but extremely well-taken goal, which was his second of the season.
Downing switched to the left shortly afterwards and showed his true winger's ability, breaking forward and staying wide with pace to stretch the Stoke defence.
On this form, Downing is one of the first names on the teamsheet, as he possesses the ability to beat men with the ball at his feet, which too few Reds can currently do.
He now needs to continue this upward trajectory and ensure his good form propels him forward to the end of the season and into next term.
Great Support from Kopites for the Stricken Fabrice Muamba
Like supporters from all over the country and indeed the world, Liverpool's fans today showed great respect and appreciation for the plight of Bolton Wanderers' midfielder Fabrice Muamba.
Currently in hospital and struggling to recover from a cardiac incident during the FA Cup match with Spurs the day before Liverpool's tie with Stoke, Muamba and his family have received letters, messages and flowers from all over the UK.
At Anfield, several banners were displayed wishing the midfielder a speedy recovery, while a minute's applause was admirably adhered to by both sets of fans prior to the game.
Liverpool supporters also chanted Muamba's name from the 41st minute until the half time whistle, as that was when Muamba originally took ill in his team's game.
Charlie Adam's Absence from the Liverpool Team Continues to Benefit the Reds
For the second game running, Charlie Adam was left on the substitutes' bench by Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, with Jay Spearing partnering Steven Gerrard in the middle.
While Spearing might not be every Reds fans' first choice for central midfield, there can be no doubting the fact that he complements Gerrard better than Adam and, more importantly, lets Liverpool play at a far better tempo than Adam does.
Adam is far from a bad player, but he is not the one that Liverpool need, as discussed here.
But with Liverpool in winning form without him in midfield now, there is every chance the Scottish midfielder will struggle to get his place back in the side for the season's run-in—and perhaps even beyond, especially with the Reds likely to strengthen further in the summer and the imminent return of Lucas Leiva from injury.
Domestic Cup Double Success on the Cards for Liverpool as They Return to Wembley
For all the work Liverpool have still to do to make themselves contenders in the Premier League once more, for all the moans and groans from the Internet armchair fans, and for all the insane number of times the Reds have struck the woodwork instead of scoring this season, there is one very much true fact:
Liverpool have a very real chance of ending the season as the team with the most silverware in England.
With the Carling Cup already in the bag and fourth place in the Premier League relying as much on slip-ups from Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham as much as Liverpool doing the business consistently themselves, much of the Reds' attentions will be on securing further cup glory through the FA Cup.
A second trophy inside of 16 months of Kenny Dalglish taking over is hugely tangible success and improvement, even if Liverpool only end the season in sixth place in the league.
Nobody inside Anfield will admit to giving up on fourth just yet, but it is certainly a distant possibility at present.
The FA Cup draw has paired Liverpool with the winners of the Sunderland-Everton replay— meaning a Merseyside derby Wembley semifinal is an intriguing possibility—but Liverpool will simply want to make sure they don't spoil their chances between now and next month by returning to inconsistent form in the league.
This can still be a very successful season for the Reds—a win against QPR next week will be a great way to start the run-in to the season's end and ensure that Kopites everywhere remain positive and upbeat.