Stoke City handed Liverpool their first defeat of the season, in what was a disappointing return from the international break by the Reds. In a game marked by controversy, referee Mark Clattenburg awarded a 21st minute penalty to striker Jonathan Walters, who got up and fired past Pepe Reina for the only goal of the game.
Walters tangled with Jamie Carragher inside the Liverpool penalty area, and replays showed that the Republic of Ireland international was already on his way to ground when Carragher put an arm around his waist. Still, it was enough in the referee’s mind to justify a spot kick.
The decision was just the first of several contentious calls that went against the Reds. In a game in which there were 23 fouls, remarkably there was only one yellow card issued, to Luis Suárez, in second half stoppage time for dissent. Even though the fouls were even, the physical, disjointed game clearly played to Stoke’s advantage.
Suárez was booked after vehemently protesting that his attempted cross was thwarted by Matthew Upson’s hand. Earlier, in the 13th minute, Dirk Kuyt had seen his shot hit the wayward arm of Rory Delap. Neither call drew a reaction from the referee, much to Liverpool’s chagrin.
The controversial decisions were enough for Kenny Dalglish to refer to them in his post-game remarks to the press:
"We've had contentious decisions in every one of our four league games this season. We would like to be respectful to the referees, but more important is them having respect for my club, and if I feel we're suffering in any way then I may need to go the same route as other people, go and see if I can gain some benefit from that. I'll speak to the owners first and see what they say."
This was likely a thinly-veiled reference to Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson’s penchant for working the officials in the press. Given the understated approach of both Dalglish and the Club’s owners however, the point being made, it is unlikely that the matter would be pursued further.
Not that Liverpool were without their opportunities. The day started brightly enough for the Reds, with Suárez shooting over bar as early as the second minute. Two minutes later Charlie Adam whipped in a dangerous cross into the Stoke box, only to see it elude Suárez and Martin Skrtel on the back post.
Stewart Downing then fired wide after a quick move in the Stoke final third. A minute later the penalty decision was granted, much against the run of play. This would take the wind out of the Liverpool sails and send them into a prolonged funk for the rest of the half.
Liverpool enjoyed their best spell after the interval, and in the 62nd minute should have equalized when José Enrique threaded a beautiful pass through to Jordan Henderson, who found himself one-on-one with Stoke keeper Asmir Begovich at the top of the box.
Henderson tamely, and maddeningly, kicked the ball straight at the Stoke custodian, with time aplenty to pick his spot. Begovich got up brilliantly to deny Henderson again, and then Adam, and before it was all over, five Liverpool shots in all were denied by Begovich and his defenders.
Dalglish made a double-switch in the 67th minute in an attempt to infuse his club with some energy, inserting Andy Carroll for an ineffective Kuyt, and Craig Bellamy for the dreadful Henderson. The changes brought some much needed life to the Liverpool attack, but not much else.
Liverpool had yet another handball shout ignored by the referee in the 86th minute, as this time Dean Whitehead got in the way of Carroll’s shot. Two minutes later, Downing found Bellamy on the back post, but the striker wasted the opportunity by heading wide.
Perhaps Liverpool’s best chance, however, would arrive in the dying seconds, as the otherwise stellar Begovich mishandled a high ball into the box, literally gifting Suárez with an opportunity to even the score. The normally composed Uruguayan somehow would screw the attempt wide of an inviting goal, a microcosm of Liverpool’s day at the Britannia.
On a day which saw Manchester United dismantle Bolton 5-0, witnessed Manchester City’s decisive 3-0 win over Wigan, and which saw Chelsea dominate Sunderland 2-1, Liverpool will be disappointed that they did not do better to keep the pace.
Liverpool enjoyed 73 percent of possession, completed 77 percent of their passes and out-shot Stoke 16-2, half of which were put on target. That they dominated in all but the most important category is beyond dispute, but in the end the only statistic that matters is the scoreline.
It is far too early to be tolling the bell on Liverpool’s title hopes, but with every contender except Arsenal getting markedly better, Dalglish’s side can hardly afford to squander points. How costly this latest disappointment will prove is yet to be seen.
As always, player ratings are presented by position (back-to-front) below, along with voting for Liverpool’s Man of the Match. In an effort to add some consistency to the ratings I am introducing a rating scale, against which the performances will be judged. The general standards used are as follows:
10: Exceptional, superlative performances only.
9: Excellent, outstanding performance.
8: Impressive, very influential game.
7: Very good, eye-catching game.
6: Average—good game, but nothing overly impressive.
5: Below average—decent performance, but with some faults.
4: Poor—many faults, performance stands out for all the wrong reasons.
Additionally, any performance which affects the outcome of the game will increase or decrease a player’s rating by half a point (.5)
Reina-—was only called into action on the penalty, but there was not much he could do about Walter’s rocket down the middle. Had one cross and one save to deal with and handled each with aplomb. Grade 6.5
Carragher—had a good game, particularly being tasked with the tricky Peter Crouch. Was caught out, however, by a simple ball over the top to Walters, and even though the penalty decision was harsh, for a second straight game finds himself responsible for the opponent’s sole tally. His tactical awareness remains top class, but with the erosion of his physical skills continuing to prove a liability, it can’t be much longer before he makes way for Sebastian Coates. Grade 5.5
Skrtel (Johnson 81’)—started at right back in place of the injured Martin Kelly and had a very good game in defense. Was instrumental in neutralizing several of Stoke's long balls into the box. Made a couple threatening forays on offense, but was guilty of failing to capitalize on his opportunities from set pieces. Grade 7
Daniel Agger—was not able to be as influential going forward as he’s known to be, and was off-target on a couple shots. While offense is not his role, a player of his ability should at least be able to put the ball on target. Defensively he did a good job of helping contain the Stoke aerial attack, but nothing really stands out from today’s performance. Grade 6
José Enrique—was relegated to largely a defensive role today, but was hardly challenged in that role. Should have had an assist after his surgical pass to Henderson, to add to one or two other opportunistic passes into the box. Grade 7
Adam—outside of his left-sided cross into the box that was missed by the pair of Skrtel and Suárez, he had a miserable afternoon at the Brittania Stadium. He was guilty of fouling far too many times, and arguably should have been booked on two separate occasions. Somehow completed 76 percent of his passes, but the 17 giveaways must have been really glaring, because it certainly seemed like he was constantly passing to a red and white shirt. Grade 4
Lucas Leiva—steady Eddy as always. While he did manage two shots, one of which forcing a save, it’s his defensive work that the gritty Brazilian is making his name known for. His positioning has drastically improved relative to past seasons, and this more than anything has contributed to his success. Whereas before he’d find himself out of position and having to make rash challenges, now he knows how to position himself for the easy intercept. Nothing overly impressive, but very nice game. Grade 7
Henderson (Bellamy 67’)—a forgettable day by Henderson. The very fact that all we can say of his day is that he squandered a golden opportunity to save his club two points with a goal, tells you all you need to know. Grade 4.5
Downing—continues to prove the worth of his signing, as he’s consistently Liverpool’s most threatening player after Suárez. Was largely stymied today by the combination of a very good Stoke defense, and the inability of the Liverpool midfield to get anything going. Still managed to create opportunities for himself and others. Was surprisingly more effective after being switched to the right side in the second half, working two very good balls into the box, including one that Bellamy should have done better with. Grade 7
Kuyt (Carroll 67’)—had a minimal impact on the game today, although it’s hard to really pin that on him. Nothing stands out one way or another, but hard to say that he had a "good" game. Grade 5
Suárez—simply put, Liverpool would be dreadful without the Uruguayan sparkplug. He really should have done better to get onto Adam’s cross to the back post in the fourth minute, and undoubtedly should have put away Begovic’s mistake in stoppage time, and that will factor into his grade. Still, he was the only one consistently threatening the Stoke defense, and rightly should have been awarded a penalty on Upson’s handball. Grade 7.5
Carroll—was not much of a factor in his 23 minutes on the pitch, but did manage to squeeze off a shot that was blocked (perhaps with the hand) by Whitehead. Grade 5.5
Bellamy—had a good game in the little time that he was on the pitch, and this portends well for the rest of the season for Liverpool. He most likely has shown enough to merit the role of first striker off the bench for Kenny Dalglish but, for today, should have done better with Downing’s late cross. Grade 6
Johnson— almost invisible in his 10 minutes on the pitch. Grade 5
Alexander Doni, Maxi Rodriguez, Sebastian Coates, Jay Spearing.