These feel like the best of times for Stoke City. With shrewd development and decision-making off the field, the club is growing as a Premier League force and results on the field have not been bad, either. This Jon Walters-inspired dismissal of a Liverpool side groping for consistency extended Stoke's club record unbeaten run in the league to nine matches.
Nobody gets an easy ride here and Stoke even shrugged off the disappointment of conceding an early penalty to Luis Suárez. Steven Gerrard's cool conversion of his club's first spot kick of the season was merely the prompt for Stoke to show their qualities.
Walters was the star turn, and his second goal was the game's outstanding moment, a chest-and-volley, one-two punch that floored Liverpool. Asked to chase the game, the visitors had no answers. Suárez was a thorn in Stoke's side, his quicksilver movement, vision and low-centre-of-gravity turns marking his threat but he sorely lacked for creative support. January needs to bring reinforcements.
At the other end, it was a horror show for Liverpool. Stoke's strengths are no secret and Brendan Rogers said his team had prepared to cope with the physicality and directness, particularly on set-pieces, but this only made the collective failure harder to swallow. Stoke's goals followed one long ball, a corner and a throw-in.
"That was the biggest frustration, the nature of the goals we conceded," Rodgers said. "They were quite straightforward to defend. The first one followed an unfortunate slip [by Martin Skrtel] but on the other two, we have to be better than that. They were all very, very soft."
Rodgers admitted that the same might have been true of his team's attitude. "It's not all about football," he said. "You have to earn the right to play. We are hoping to find this in the group, otherwise we are never going to progress. We have some big characters but tonight it was too easy."
Liverpool's dream start had followed a breathtaking surge from Suárez, which took him away from Ryan Shawcross and into the area. The Stoke captain grabbed a fistful of his shirt, he went down and it was a penalty, despite Stoke's protests. Suárez is a villain in these parts, after his alleged dive against Stoke at Anfield in October.
A red flare had banged to life inside the visiting enclosure upon the award but Stoke were level before the smoke had cleared. Daniel Agger leapt with Kenwyne Jones to contest Shawcross's high punt and when the ball broke, Skrtel slipped and Walters was in to finish. Stoke's second was a calamity from a Liverpool point of view. Agger failed to track Jones from Glenn Whelan's corner and Glen Johnson, having left his station on the post, could only divert Jones' header into the corner.
An entertaining first half featured chances at both ends. Jonjo Shelvey's heavy touch let him down when well-placed and Gerrard's first-time effort flashed narrowly wide. For Stoke, Matthew Etherington was twice denied by Pepe Reina. The game swung decisively, though, on Walters' second goal. Rodgers lamented the looseness that allowed Jones to flick on Andy Wilkinson's throw and Walters to collect. But there could only be admiration about the finish. Walters controlled on his chest with one touch and steered a glorious volley high into the corner with the second.
Suárez had gone close immediately after the restart following incisive work by substitute Raheem Sterling but the Uruguayan was booked when he stretched into a challenge on Asmir Begovic with his boot up. The Stoke goalkeeper was already airborne and he felt Suárez's studs on his knees. Rodgers complained that Suarez had eyes only for the ball and the striker came off worse, needing treatment and departing with ice to his ankle.
Walters' volley asked Liverpool to press yet they barely threatened to leave Stoke to luxuriate in their home fortress. Stoke last lost a league fixture here in February. "We're so proud to host a game against Liverpool," said Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager. "When you beat them, it gives you great delight. When I was growing up, they were an absolutely fabulous football club ... Liverpool, Anfield, it rings really loud in my ears."
For the modern side, the frustration is audible.
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