Liverpool earned a vital first-leg advantage in the Capital One Cup, defeating Stoke City 1-0 on Tuesday at the Britannia Stadium as the Reds deservedly won the match.
A solitary goal from early substitute Jordon Ibe in the first half was enough for manager Jurgen Klopp, and the Merseyside club will take their slim lead into the second leg.
It was a dogmatic performance by Liverpool as they played their best football for a number of weeks, defending in numbers late in the day to secure the victory.
The visitors were without injured defensive duo Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel for the first leg, with Kolo Toure partnering Dejan Lovren in the heart of the Reds defence. Roberto Firmino was given the nod over striker Christian Benteke, as Liverpool looked for a fluid front line against the Potters.
Stoke gave Ibrahim Afellay a spot in the starting XI in place of recent goalscoring midfielder Jonathan Walters.
Former Liverpool player Dietmar Hamann passed comment on his former team before kick-off:
I feel tonight could be a defining moment early in Klopp's Liverpool career as it seems he's losing faith in most of his squad.— Didi Hamann (@DietmarHamann) January 5, 2016
It was Liverpool who flew out of the blocks in the opening moments, reminding fans of their amazing performances at Manchester City and Chelsea in the Premier League and the 6-1 drubbing of Southampton in the previous round of the League Cup.
Stoke couldn't get going as Klopp's team raided forward, with Firmino and Philippe Coutinho leading the mesmeric charge.
However, the German manager soon had his head in his hands as his side lost Coutinho and Lovren to injury, with both players being immediately replaced.
James Pearce of the Liverpool Echo remarked about the significance of the substitutions:
Coutinho is going to be a huge miss in those upcoming PL games with Arsenal and United. Crazy how many hamstring problems #LFC have had.— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) January 5, 2016
Despite the loss of starting personnel, it was Klopp's men who deservedly took the lead through Coutinho's replacement, Ibe, after 37 minutes.
The 20-year-old latched on to a scuffed shot from Wales international Joe Allen in the box and finished with aplomb as he drove his effort past goalkeeper Jack Butland.
BBC Sport's Phil McNulty called the action as Stoke boss Mark Hughes appeared frustrated by his team's abject performance:
Liverpool do what they have been threatening all half - Jordon Ibe scores at the far post. 0-1.— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) January 5, 2016
Mark Hughes is so angry he's forgotten to put a waterproof on over his best suit. It will get ruined in this weather.— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) January 5, 2016
The Potters woke up in the final minutes of the half as Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri got on the ball.
Liverpool stopper Simon Mignolet was called into action just before the half-time whistle, forced to make a diving save from former Reds defender Glen Johnson.
WhoScored.com shared the stats at half-time that showed the hosts had not been economical with the ball despite having the lion's share of possession:
Stoke 0-1 Liverpool HT: Shots (OT) 7(1)-10(4), Possession 62%-38%, Tackles 10-13, Rating 6.30-6.78 https://t.co/QYueyeZ7Mv— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) January 5, 2016
Walters entered the fray at half-time as Hughes rang the tactical changes, desperate to fire his team to an improved performance after a poor opening.
The switch appeared to work for the hosts, who looked business-like as they attacked the Liverpool back four with increased vigour and aggression.
The match was suddenly a contest as Shaqiri and Johnson looked to exploit their opponents' vulnerability to crosses, as the forwards queued up in the penalty area.
However, as Stoke pushed forward, Liverpool looked to counter-attack—and James Milner and Ibe both went close to claiming a second.
Liverpool had weathered the storm after 75 minutes, but the Potters were still motivated to grab an equaliser as the mood ebbed and flowed from the crowd, per McNulty:
Stoke City much improved this half but still can't find a way through some resolute Liverpool defending.— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) January 5, 2016
Klopp threw on Benteke for the final moments to add weight to his pack, with the Reds, working as a tight unit, successfully defending a number of crosses and set pieces.
Hughes made one last roll of the dice by bringing on Peter Crouch, as the play became stretched in the Liverpool half.
However, it was too little, too late for the hosts as the travelling Reds celebrated in the stands at full time. Liverpool's strong performance had been rewarded with a 1-0 win, and Klopp's famous smile beamed from the dugout at the final whistle.
Despite the nature of the win, football blogger Dan Kennett highlighted Liverpool have not found their most electrifying form this term:
#LFC have played 30 games this season 13 have been wins 8 have been 1-0 wins 😨😨😨😨😨— Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) January 5, 2016
Klopp will be satisfied with the result, but his team could have come away with a significant lead if they had utilised their territorial advantage in the first-half.
Hughes will believe his men still have a chance of progressing to the final, but it will take a herculean effort at Anfield to deny Liverpool.
Klopp said he was proud of his team's effort at Stoke as they gained a slim advantage, but admitted the injuries sustained on Tuesday concern him, and he could enter the January transfer market as a result—as quoted by the club's official Twitter feed:
JK: "It's a big shadow over the game for us, the injuries. I don't know how serious and we have to wait for this." #LFC— Liverpool FC (@LFC) January 5, 2016
JK: "In this situation with no centre-backs fit I would say [transfers] is something we could look at." #LFC— Liverpool FC (@LFC) January 5, 2016
The Capital One Cup semi-final second leg takes place at Anfield on Tuesday, Jan 26 at 7.45 p.m. GMT.