STOKE CITY bowed out of the Capital One Cup in the most heart-breaking fashion imaginable at Anfield on Tuesday evening.
Marko Arnautovic’s neatly taken first half effort was enough to secure the Potters a thoroughly deserved 1-0 victory after 90 minutes and take the tie to extra-time.
Neither side were able to find a breakthrough during the additional 30 minutes of play although substitute Marco van Ginkel went agonisingly close when he rattled the woodwork from eight yards.
So, after 210 minutes of deadlock, the tie went all the way to penalties!
And yet despite leading throughout the shootout it was the hosts who claimed a spot at Wembley courtesy of Joe Allen’s pinpoint effort, which secured the Reds a dramatic 6-5 triumph.
Jonathan Walters, Glenn Whelan, Ibrahim Afellay, Xherdan Shaqiri and Marco van Ginkel all dispatched their spot kicks with real aplomb, but it was the heroics of Simon Mignolet which earned him the headlines.
The Belgian stopper, who recently penned a new five-year deal, saved to deny both Peter Crouch and Marc Muniesa, who had produced a sublime performance along with Philipp Wollscheid at the heart of the side.
However, his missed penalty proved to be pivotal to the outcome of the tie as it presented Welsh international Allen the opportunity to set up a Wembley date for the Merseysiders, and he duly obliged by striking into the top corner.
Whilst his effort was met with euphoria around three sides of the stadium, for the travelling Stoke fans, housed behind that goal, it was sheer despair.
They didn’t deserve such a catastrophic ending, not one single bit!
Neither did Mark Hughes or his players, whom gave everything and a little bit more in their bid to turn the one-goal deficit from the first leg around.
The Welshman opted to make a quartet of changes to his starting eleven prior to kick-off - looking to capitalise on Liverpool’s apparent vulnerabilities at the back.
The height of Peter Crouch was going always going to present a serious challenge to the home team’s rearguard, and so it proved, whilst it was Muniesa who won the battle with Marc Wilson to fill Ryan Shawcross’ void at the heart of defence.
As expected, Austrian maverick Arnautovic was recalled to the eleven after sitting out Saturday’s reverse at Leicester City whilst Bojan was reinstated into the side. Somewhat surprisingly Xherdan Shaqiri was named amongst the substitutes.
From the off there was a real sense of determination within the Stoke camp - they pressed and hassled the home side at every opportunity - reminiscent of what the Reds did to the Potters in the first leg three weeks earlier.
Stoke were in control for the majority of the first half, and whilst Arnautovic’s goal moments before the half-time interval may have been marginally offside, there was no denying that the goal wasn’t deserved.
Liverpool were rocked, yet their supporters remained buoyant and in good voice.
Still, despite their vocal backing it was the visitors who seized the initiative during the second period, as Walters went close with an effort from 8-yards which was brilliantly blocked by the outstretched Mamadou Sakho.
Crouch, who was starting against his former teammates, looped a couple of headers over the bar, whilst he was marginally unable to make contact with a bouncing ball in the box when had he managed to do so the net surely would have bulged.
At the other end the first real period of sustained pressure from the hosts culminated in Roberto Firmino striking the post from a tight angle, before Jack Butland watched nervously as Emre Can’s thunderbolt flew narrowly wide of the post.
Hughes responded by introducing Shaqiri and Charlie Adam in a bid to alter the flow of the game, although the Scotland ace soon had to be withdrawn after being caught heavily on his ankle. He was replaced by van Ginkel.
It was he who very nearly made a telling contribution during extra time when he burst through to meet Crouch’s flick on, breezed past Lucas and fired a close range strike beyond Mignolet, but watched in disbelief as it cannoned back off the post.
The on-loan Chelsea ace was at it again soon after when he latched on to another intelligent flick from Crouch, but watched the Reds number one claw his effort away from goal with the fans behind primed to celebrate what may well have been one of the most famous moments in the Club’s history.
The last real opportunity fell to Jordan Ibe, the young winger whose strike settled the reverse fixture at the Britannia Stadium, but after manoeuvring space to find an opening he lacked composure and lofted the ball high into the Kop.
So it was to go down to penalites - with the first battle - the coin toss - being won by Stoke.
Walters got the ball rolling with a superb strike of the ball before Adam Lallana levelled. Mignolet then saved Crouch’s effort, before the home supporters were brought back down to earth when Can flashed his strike wide.
Both sides then exchanged blows to take it to five apiece and sudden death. Once Muniesa saw his precision penalty superbly saved by Mignolet you feared the worst, and so it proved as Allen struck home from 12-yards to break the hearts of the visiting players, management and supporters.
An end result to forget, but a night, for so many proud reasons, to remember!