A precious point was swept away from Liverpool in their pursuit of the championship at Stoke yesterday, though it would be more accurate to suggest that they preserved a point for it was Stoke City who looked more likely winners as the match evolved. However dismal their away performances, Stoke have more substance at home, having conceded only 10 goals on familiar ground all season.
Yet it all looked promising for Liverpool at the outset. Without calling on too much pace or effort, they set conundrums for Stoke's defence which found itself reaching in all directions. Four corners in the opening five minutes pointed to Liverpool's initial enterprise as Stoke allowed them too much time and space, and there were two opportunities to score within 20 minutes which one would normally expect Liverpool to snap up avidly.
Keegan, of all people, spurned the simplest challenge of the afternoon. Kennedy's free kick from the left was touched on by Smith and Keegan, scampering in at the right hand post, got a foot to the ball, when he might have stooped to apply his head, and scooped the ball up and over the bar. It was a remarkable miss from only a matter of yards and Stoke could count themselves fortunate, too, when Keegan directed a ball parallel to the goal line with neither friend nor foe able to reach it.
Perhaps they were portents of what was to come for, slowly, Liverpool's game lost its order and became surprisingly undistinguished. Passes were often slip-shod and their shooting - usually from a distance - was woefully inaccurate. Heighway was the one forward who consistently looked to have the skill and initiative to plot a way through.
Stoke were slow to recognize that they had survived the best of Liverpool on the day. Once they did, Smith and Bloor sealed the middle. Mahoney and Salmons worked busily tilling the midfield and Crooks and Ruggiero, in only his second senior match, swelled in confidence and composure. Indeed, each winger in turn might well have won the match for Stoke.
Tudor hinted at the anxious moments Liverpool were to endure in the final 20 minutes with a shot and a header. Both were off the mark, but near enough to warn that Hughes, who had a commanding afternoon at the hub of Liverpool's defence, and Smith would not be allowed to relax vigilance.
But it was to Clemence that Liverpool had to turn in the end to remain intact. First he stretched upwards to turn Ruggiero's shot an inch or two over the top. Then Crooks spun quickly and shot in the same moment and the England goalkeeper flung himself sideways at lightning speed to knock the ball aside and on to the outside of his right hand post.
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