LIVERPOOL inflicted only a second home defeat of the campaign upon the Potters on Sunday afternoon in arguably the most exhilarating Premier League fixture of 2013/14 thus far.
The visitors looked certain of all three points as bizarre goals from Aly Cissokho and Luis Suarez gave them a two-goal cushion by the time the game had hit the 30-minute mark.
However, a storming Stoke comeback, thanks to efforts from former Anfield stars Peter Crouch and Charlie Adam, in the space of seven minutes, threatened to derail the Reds title challenge.
Referee Anthony Taylor awarded Brendan Rodgers’ side a controversial penalty five minutes after the break to allow Steven Gerrard to restore his side’s advantage, before a superb Suarez second looked to have finally killed off the spirited home side.
Jonathan Walters, who scored a brace in this fixture last term, halved the deficit with a well-taken effort just six minutes from time, before the game was finally put to bed in stoppage time courtesy of substitute Daniel Sturridge.
Prior to kick-off Jack Butland was handed his first Premier League start by boss Mark Hughes, despite the fact that Thomas Sorensen overcame a late fitness test to take up a spot within the matchday squad.
The Welshman did make two changes though, of which one was enforced, with the ineligible Oussama Assaidi being replaced by Walters on the flank, whilst Crouch was recalled at the expense of the absent Kenwyne Jones.
The Potters, looking to protect their unbeaten start to the calendar year, actually looked the brighter of the two sides during the initial exchanges, but weren’t able to capitalise on a spell of severe pressure inside the Reds penalty box.
Stoke’s failure to take advantage of a sluggish Liverpool start came back to haunt them just six minutes in when an audacious, and off-target, 35-yard effort from full-back Cissokho cannoned off Ryan Shawcross and into the back of the net.
The goal rocked the home side, and gave the undoubted advantage to the Champions League chasers, who began to assert themselves on the game, in the same way they had done to numerous other teams during an impressive campaign.
Thankfully, Brazilian Phillipe Coutinho wasn’t able to hit the target after being cleverly teed up 15-yards out by Raheem Sterling, before Butland produced a scintillating save to deny the attacking midfielder from 9-yards.
Hughes will have been left bewildered 15 minutes before the break however, when his side shipped a second goal of the afternoon in even more comical circumstances than Cissokho’s fortuitous opener.
A hopeful ball was pumped forward 60-yards by defender Martin Skrtel, Marc Wilson allowed it to bounce but managed to place a header back to Butland, Shawcross stuck his foot out to deny Suarez latching on to it, only to then gift the Uruguayan his 21st goal of the campaign, with Butland left as a helpless bystander.
Game over... well, so you would have thought! For just nine minutes later, with their first real meaningful effort at goal, the Potters had halved the deficit thanks to former Liverpool favourite Crouch.
The striker leaped highest inside the penalty box to meet Marko Arnautovic’s delicious ball into the danger zone, and glanced a superb header beyond the outstretched Simon Mignolet into the bottom corner.
90 percent of the stadium was lifted by the goal, as for the first time in the game, the home side exposed the frailties that so clearly existed within the visitors backline.
Incredibly, just moments later, Hughes’ side were level, and what a strike it was from Adam, who became the second player to net against his former side courtesy of an absolute thunderbolt from outside the penalty area.
The home side actually ended the half the strongest of the two teams and looked undoubtedly the more likely to go into the interval in front, of barrage of attacks pegged the disorientated visitors inside their own half.
The break came at the perfect time for Rodgers’ troops, who were able to regroup and re-compose themselves, in a bid to restore a lead that they will have felt disappointed to have surrendered in the fashion they had done.
Referee Taylor, missed a blatant handball by Sterling in the build up to arguably the most defining moment of the game, as the winger progressed forward following the incident and was brushed aside by Wilson, only to be awarded a controversial spot kick by the official.
The Stoke supporters, clearly aggrieved by the decision, did their utmost to startle Gerrard, but the skipper displayed incredible composure and brushed the ball into the bottom corner of the net to edge his side back in front.
Stoke pressed forward in search of another avenue back into the game, with Adam and Glenn Whelan, both hammering efforts wide of goal, before Crouch narrowly failed to make contact with a dangerous Arnautovic cross.
With Hughes opting to throw everything forward in a bid to salvage something from the game, a classic Liverpool counter attack culminated in Sturridge flicking the ball out side to Suarez, who curled a superbly executed effort into the far corner, to sign seal and deliver the win for his side.
But, just as was the case in the first half, Stoke weren’t giving up on the game, as the dangerous Arnautovic freed Walters inside the box, he took one touch and drilled the ball under Mignolet to restore further hope to the home supporters.
However, just as the game looked destined for a frantic finale, Sturridge hammered home the killer blow at the second attempt, after initially being foiled by Butland, who made an incredible point-blank save to thwart the England front-man.
There was still time for Walters to force Mignolet into another top drawer save at the other end, whilst Crouch rattled the woodwork with another header in the dying stages of stoppage time.