Thanks to Jordon Ibe’s 37th minute goal, Liverpool takes a 1-0 lead into the home leg of its Capital One League Cup semifinal second leg but it was an advantage earned at the expense of Philippe Coutinho, Dejan Lovren and Kolo Toure, all victims of apparent hamstring injuries. Add in Mamadou Sakho who suffered a knee problem earlier in the day and Liverpool is now without 12 members of its first-team squad through injury, six of them hamstrings.
Klopp said last week that “hamstring” was his "s*** word” of the year; Liverpool currently have 12 players out injured, six of them with hamstring problems. Assigning causes to such blights is never easy, but it’s hard not at least to speculate whether Klopp arriving and demanding greater work-rate has overburdened players who haven’t had the benefit of a preseason with him. Outspoken Dutch fitness expert Raymond Verheijen had predicted something similar on Dec. 23, tweeting, “It will be interesting to keep an eye on Liverpool in the upcoming weeks as they are about to hit an injury crisis under new manager Klopp.”
The German boss was impressed with his side’s performance, but bemoaned the loss of two more players to potentially serious hamstring injuries. "I am absolutely proud of the performance of my team tonight," Klopp said after the win. "They were from the first second of the game perfect reaction from the last game. But we had for sure two bad, I think, injuries and that’s why I’m not only lucky tonight."
Liverpool’s defense has become a particular concern with Toure the only centerback still standing. On Tuesday, Lucas Leiva filled in, as he had at Watford, and did well enough to prevent Stoke from finding an equalizer. It’s hardy a long-term solution, though. Apart from anything else, this was a mystifyingly flat performance from Stoke, far removed from the bravura displays against Manchester City and Manchester United. The introduction of Jon Walters at halftime did give Stoke greater energy, but Liverpool was still relatively comfortable.
Five times since Klopp’s arrival, Liverpool has fallen behind in the opening quarter hour of matches, something that has clearly been a major source of frustration. There was no danger of that here. Liverpool began with a ferocious intensity and spent the majority of the opening 18 minutes encamped in the Stoke half. All that was missing was a goal — or, indeed, a really clear-cut chance. Although the ball bobbed about the box in a way that provoked anxiety among the home fans, the only real shot on goal was a swerving 25-yarder from Adam Lallana which Jack Butland, who has been excellent this season, saved at full stretch.
But then Coutinho pulled up with a hamstring injury and limped off, breaking Liverpool’s rhythm and allowing Stoke a foothold in the game. Just after the half hour, Lovren also succumbed, overstretching as he made a sliding tackle on Xherdan Shaqiri. Stoke must have sensed vulnerability but it was just as the momentum seemed to have shifted that Liverpool took the lead, Joe Allen cleverly guiding Lallana’s cross into the path of Ibe, who beat Butland with an angled shot.
It might have been more before halftime but Roberto Firmino, restored to center-forward in preference to Christian Benteke, who had a dreadful game at West Ham on Saturday, miscontrolled after being set through and was dispossessed by Ryan Shawcross.
The Brazilian, signed from Hoffenheim for $42 million in the summer, played a huge role in the away wins over Chelsea and Manchester City that probably represent Liverpool’s most impressive performances this season. On Tuesday night and not for the first time this season, however, Firmino seemed lost, repeatedly choosing the wrong option. His best game was in that 4-1 at City when he scored two and set up another but, even then, he missed three clear opportunities. It may simply be a matter of confidence but at the moment there are only the slightest signs that he can fit into this Liverpool side.
Given Liverpool had lost three out of four away games since the 6-1 demolition of Southampton in the quarterfinal, this could be seen as a significant improvement. Being generous, it may even be that Liverpool’s early surge so rattled Stoke that it never truly got back on track. Perhaps if Coutinho had stayed on there might have been a performance to match the wins at Chelsea, City or Southampton.
As it was, Stoke never really threatened, aside from one deflected Joselu shot that Simon Mignolet tipped over and a very late Jonathan Walters effort that he dragged wide. Whether that was down to its own lack of thrust or Liverpool’s defending was difficult to say, but that’s three clean sheets in four now for Klopp’s side and, more importantly, this was a major step towards February’s final.
The question is, who’ll be fit to play in the second leg in three weeks time?
Information from FOXSoccer.com’s wireservices were used in this report.