Consider the glut of strikers Liverpool have offloaded in recent years, Crouch, Bellamy, Keane, Morientes. Surely one of these proven goalscorers could have been kept hold of in case fragile old Fernando takes a slight knock. Not so it seems. Rafa's decided he's just fine with Fernando Torres, Dirk "second touch is always a tackle'" Kuyt and David Ngog. Oh Rafa.Of course Rafa also persisted for two and a half seasons with the woefully inept Andriy Voronin, a player so useless he made David Ngog look like a viable option. The Ukrainian striker was clearly out of his depth in the Premier League and knowing his obvious limitations, it raises further questions about Rafa's thinking. Did he really see Voronin as an attacking alternative going into this campaign? Whatever his thinking, one thing's for sure, unless he secures the signing of a second quality striker in this transfer window, it's difficult to see where Liverpool's goals come from in Torres's absence.
The first half of this dismal encounter was fairly even and with very little incident. Liverpool got the ball to their midfielders, who gamely ran about a lot but visibly panicked when their big brother Steven wasn't there to pass to, or indeed their strangely attractive sister Fernando wasn't there to sprint into space.
Instead they were stuck with David Ngog, a man who appeared to be merely impersonating a professional footballer this afternoon. He could well be the most ineffective forward I've seen at Stoke this season. Sometimes with players, you have to accept that the manager sees them on the training ground all week, he sees him play week in week out, he knows all too well what that player can do. However, quite how Rafa feels Ngog is the an acceptable choice to lead a club like Liverpool's forward line is astonishing. Even Dirk 'Iain Dowie's long lost Dutch brother' Kuyt would surely be a more valid option.
Shawcross and Huth easily contain him the entire game and it's down to the sprightly Lucas to pose some attacking threat. The busy midfielder charged into the Stoke penalty area mid way through the first half and appeared to be pole-axed by a lunging Danny Higginbotham. Luckily for us, the referee decided Lucas had dived and waved their penalty claim away before booking the aghast Lucas. Now replays do suggest the Brazilian may have gone to ground rather theatrically when Higgy scythed him down, but for me the defender clearly made contact and Lucas couldn't of stayed on his feet if they were encased in cement. Nevertheless, a brave and courageous decision from ref Lee Mason and one I wholeheartedly endorse.
Stoke lost both Abdoulaye Faye and Rory Delap in the first half. Rory was predictably playing on the right wing in order to accommodate Salif Diao in the middle, much to the continuing frustration of the Potters faithful. It is a general consensus that if Rory has to be played, then he is more effective in the centre then out wide. Diao actually played well today, but his ultra-defensive nature and astonishing lack of attacking prowess, is not particularly becoming of a home team searching for a win.
Rory went off with a calf strain with around 20 minutes gone and was replaced by Liam Lawrence, who for me has still to prove himself as a Premiership midfielder. He's undeniably a tireless worker who, on his day, can change a game. Recently however he has simply not produced the goods with too many misplaced passes, and far too few goals. Rory's throw ins are a superb asset to utilise against the better teams in the league. I firmly subscribe to the view that relying on his long throw every week is often a counterproductive tactic. However in most away games and in home games against the top 6/7 teams, it could well prove to be our best chance of a goal. When Rory went off, so with it went our only threat on goal thus far in the game.
The second half began much as the first ended, with both teams doing their best to ensure the Match of the Day editors had the toughest job possible to put together match 'highlights'.
On 57 minutes, Liverpool earned a dubious free-kick and defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos bundled the resultant cross over the line from yards out after a Sorenson fumble. The travelling fans rejoiced and Match of the Day editors thanked the lord for something at last to work with.
The next half an hour or so of football was far from pretty but nevertheless vintage Stoke. Free kicks, crosses, even long throws (who knew Salif Diao is an acceptable long throw deputy, obtaining an impressive distance if not the same velocity as the Delapinator), were constantly launched into the Liverpool box. Reina and his defence held on valiantly and almost did enough to secure the win.
Ricardo Fuller was brought on with 66 minutes played, and he once again made a huge difference. His powerful runs and dogged determination was a constant thorn in the Scousers' side and he must have won us at least 4 corners all on his own. It was off one such corner that our chance finally came in the 89th minute. The ball floated to the back post where Higgy headed it back across goal. A faint flick on from Diao and it fell perfectly at Huth's feet for him to smack it into the net from yards out.
You really can't beat a last minute goal when it goes for your team. The fact that it was yet another disappointment for the beleaguered scouse away following made it all the sweeter. The crowd knew just how important this goal was, earning us a valuable point in a game we could very easily have lost. The ensuing celebrations were up there with the best of the season so far.
There was still time for Dirk 'I wonder what his real middle name is' Kuyt to miss an absolute sitter in the last few seconds of extra time (arguably thus demonstrating why Rafa doesn't want him leading the line). Luckily his diving header rebounded back off the post and the still celebrating crowd collectively exhaled a huge sigh of relief.
Another disappointment for Rafa and his multi-million pound squad of European also rands. A priceless point for us.
Anyone who has read this blog before may remember me bemoaning our bad luck in the Villa away game and how I questioned whether this bad luck would eventually even itself out over the course of the season. Well, after Shawcross's blatant handball against Fulham went unpunished and Liverpool's solid penalty appeal was waved away here, perhaps it's fair to say what goes around has truly come around.
It'll take more than luck to win our next game though, on-fire Arsenal are at the Brit for red-hot FA cup action. I sense the Match of the Day editing team are slightly more excited about their prospects for this encounter.