All’s well that ends well – Liverpool are on their way back to Wembley.
The Reds’ performance against Stoke City in the semi-final of the League Cup was far from the quality the fans expect from their side; however, supporters soon forgot about that when Joe Allen netted his penalty to send Jurgen Klopp’s men into the final.
Little over three months since taking the helm at Anfield, the German has stewarded Liverpool into their first final for almost four years.
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Trophies are what Liverpool Football Club supporters live and breathe. Too long has the trophy cabinet at Anfield been starved of a new piece of silverware – but now, they’re just 90 minutes from getting the keys out of the draw and unbolting the locks on the case.
The Reds made hard work of their clash against the Potters, however. If it was Stoke who were on their way to Wembley, there wouldn’t have been too many Kopites claiming injustice.
Liverpool's performance had similarities to when Aston Villa dumped them out of the FA Cup semi-final last season.
In their biggest match of the season, on home soil and beginning the match with a slender but precious one goal lead, the Reds registered a lacklustre display from start to finish. They were slow out of the blocks and never gained any momentum when they eventually did.
Despite being one goal to the good on aggregate, home supporters hoped Liverpool would start the match with flying colours and issue a statement of intent to Stoke as opposed to resting on their laurels. Instead, the Staffordshire outfit won nearly every first and second ball.
Stoke dominated the middle of the park. Emre Can’s form has been on a downward spiral in recent weeks and his poor use of the ball created problems for his team.
Jordan Henderson also failed to inspire his side to victory and looked well off the pace. His usual energy was noticeably absent and he could not get to grips with the pace of the game; however, he came off after 62 minutes which suggests that he may have been struggling with injury.
The Reds recorded just two shots on target in 120 minutes and it was a comfortable night in goal for Jack Butland. They may have scored five against Norwich City, but Klopp’s men still have problems in front of goal and creating clear-cut chances against a defence who is well-organised.
Roberto Firmino’s drilled effort was thwarted by Butland's foot at the near post and Can's shot fizzed past the post; however, that was about as close as Liverpool went.
Deserved Stoke lead
When Marko Arnautovic gave the visitors the opener on the stroke of half-time, it was not against the run of play. Jonathan Walters had a glorious chance to give Stoke the lead midway through the first period after splitting the Liverpool defence, but the Ireland international shot wide after Mamadou Sakho made up late ground to put pressure on.
Alberto Moreno has long been criticised for his defensive duties and they were exposed once again. The Spaniard was drawn to the ball and left a void on the left-hand side. Bojan picked out an unmarked Arnautovic, who easily finished past Simon Mignolet. Although the Austria international was offside, Kolo Toure did not play to the whistle and he could well have forced a block on Arnautovic.
Liverpool laboured through the game and Kopites were on the edge of their seats for all the wrong reasons.
However, an inspirational performance from Sakho helped dilute any nerves and he made two superb last ditch challenges on Walters after the break.
He played with his heart on his sleeve, likewise the returning Jon Flanagan.
626 days since he last started for Liverpool, the 22-year-old was certainly thrown into the deep end. After making a few appearances for the Under-21’s and coming off the bench against Exeter City, Flanagan replaced Nathaniel Clyne at right-back.
Although there were some who seemingly lacked passion, Flanagan was the opposite. He displayed his intent with two hard challenges on Arnuatovic and Erik Pieters and it was a shame some of his team-mates could not mirror his determination.
Flanagan has scored just once for his boyhood club, against Tottenham Hotspur in 2013, and his celebration was electric that day. He had the chance to level things up against Stoke but could not get his shot off; if he did score, he could well have ended up five rows deep in the Kop.
Flanagan lasted 105 minutes and was likely feeling the effects when he woke up on Wednesday morning. However, he’d have enjoyed his run out and will be craving more action.
Prior to Flanagan’s chance, Christian Benteke should have converted Moreno’s cross. He was favourite to win the header against Pieters and should well have done, but could not get a clean connection on the ball.
The Belgium international yet again started looking on from the bench and his reoccurring problem of being unable to adapt to Klopp's tactics continue. His movement was once again insufficient; he was often pulling off into wide and deep positions that did not give his teammates options when they did get into decent areas.
Penalties were the last thing Klopp and his side wished for in the build-up to the match. They likely had a few routine shoot-outs in training but the ex-Borussia Dortmund manager likely prayed it would only be a final solution.
The Liverpool boss only found out the result of each spot kick by the reaction of the crowd as he could not bare to watch.
The Reds have an exceptionally good penalty shoot-out record and advanced to the fourth round of the competition with a victory against Carlisle United coming the same way. But, with a shortage of senior members of the dressing room on the pitch, anything could have happened.
Liverpool's two heroes were two men who've faced severe scrutiny in the past.
Simon Mignolet looked tentative throughout the match as Stoke looked to utilise the height of Peter Crouch from set pieces; however, shot stopping is the strongest point of his game and he excelled in the shoot-out.
His save to deny Crouch from 12 yards was fairly straightforward, but he superbly stopped Marc Muniesa to give Liverpool the advantage. His heroics in the shoot-out will certainly give him much-needed confidence.
It was a moment for a player to steal the glory and up stepped Allen. He's been ridiculed with the nickname 'Welsh Xavi' ever since he moved to Anfield from Swansea City for £15 million in 2012 and he's had plenty of critics.
Allen has been in a decent vein of form of late and offered Liverpool energy they'd previously lacked in the nucleus of the pitch. He seems to be relishing the extra responsibility under Klopp and could well push Can aside for a starting place.
There were a few groans when he walked towards the penalty spot but his penalty could not have created a bigger eruption. Anfield went wild when he sent Butland the wrong way and he deserved the glory.
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