Stoke 0 Liverpool 1
Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Liverpool is that in the closing stages Stoke City had abandoned their new soft-touch football and were aiming long, hopeful balls up to Peter Crouch. There was no way through and Jürgen Klopp's team deservedly take a first-leg back to Anfield after subduing a team that has already beaten Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City on this ground so far this season.
Stoke certainly chose a bad night to forego the qualities that have given them a newly attractive sheen and made this such a difficult ground for opposing teams. Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri were both substituted after strangely listless performances and there was a collective gasp when the public announcer named Marko Arnautovic as the man-of-the-match. Arnautovic had been on the edges of the game all night and the truth was that Liverpool outpassed their opponents for long spells, particularly in the first half when Jordon Ibe scored from the game's decisive moment.
Klopp’s men played with enough distinction in those moments to be thought of as strong favourites when the teams renew acquaintances at Anfield on January 26th. There was, however, a downside for Liverpool in the form of the injuries that left them with a patched-up back four and the makings of a defensive crisis.
Their night certainly came at a cost given that Philippe Coutinho lasted only 17 minutes here before suffering a recurrence of the hamstring issues that have already troubled him this season. He was missing for almost three weeks last time and, limping heavily, the Brazilian cannot be expected to be back when Liverpool embark on their next two Premier League fixtures, at home to Arsenal and Manchester United.
The same goes for Dejan Lovren after his night was also ended by a hamstring injury, from a first-half challenge on Shaqiri, meaning Liverpool had to experiment with Lucas Leiva, a central midfielder, alongside Kolo Touré in the heart of their defence.
James Milner, returning from his own injury layoff, was brought on from the bench to go into midfield much earlier than Klopp had envisaged and, in the circumstances, Liverpool showed commendable resolve not to allow the various changes to disrupt their early rhythm and supremacy.
Klopp’s team began the game with great self-belief, knocking the ball around confidently and repeatedly opening up their opponents. Their movement and penetration was reminiscent at time to their six-goal performance in the quarter-final against Southampton and it was strange in those moments to see Stoke operating with so little fluency of their own.
This was their first semi-final in this competition since winning the trophy in 1972 and, having been reminded of that fact so frequently during the build-up, perhaps a little uncertainty crept in during the opening exchanges.
Mark Hughes looking agitated in his technical area after the first few minutes and the moment when Glen Johnson slipped the ball through Coutinho's legs was incongruous given how the first half panned out.
Bojan completely miskicked his one chance while Shaqiri and Arnautovic showed only flickers of the ability that has been so influential during Stoke’s better performances.
Stoke looked sluggish in a way that could never have been expected and, for a team that also pride themselves on their qualities of structure and organisation, it was unusual as well to see the frequency with which they lost the ball inside their own half.
At one point, Roberto Firmino dispossessed Glenn Whelan and was left with a clear run at goal, only to be let down by a moment of poor control that allowed Ryan Shawcross to make a saving tackle.
Liverpool, eight-time winners of this competition, had taken the lead a couple of minutes earlier when Adam Lallana found space on the right and turned the ball into the penalty area for Joe Allen to have the first chance. Allen's shot was miscued but Ibe was to his left and the ball fell conveniently for the 20-year-old to get it under control and pick out the corner with a left-foot shot.
By half-time, Klopp was entitled to think his team had had enough of the ball in encouraging positions, ought to have been further ahead and maybe should have spared themselves some anxious moments after the interval.
Hughes brought on Jonathan Walters to add some presence to Stoke's attack, taking off Geoff Cameron and moving Bojan into a more withdrawn role, no doubt trying to capitalise on Lucas's lack of inches.
The home side had a more direct approach after that and, for the first time, there were moments to indicate that Liverpool might be vulnerable.
Even then, however, there was the sight of Krkic aiming a simple pass straight into touch. He is one of the more stylish distributors of the ball in English football but this was a night when Stoke’s opponents played with much greater refinement.
Liverpool defended manfully during the closing stages, when Touré also appeared to damage his hamstring but chose to play on.
Walters had a chance in stoppage time but dragged his shot wide and, at that stage, it would have flattered Stoke if they had managed to concoct an equaliser.