<
>

Coutinho and Firmino seal Liverpool comeback after Klopp rings changes

STOKE-ON-TRENT, England -- Three thoughts from Stoke 1-2 Liverpool at the bet365 Stadium.

1. Liverpool's top four hopes survive for now

Jurgen Klopp told his players to forget playing the "Liverpool way" ahead of his side's trip to the bet365 Stadium. Liverpool eventually took that instruction on board, but they required the help of two world-class stars in Saturday's 2-1 comeback.

It looked to be another case of deja vu, Liverpool failing against the division's lower teams, when Stoke led over an hour into the contest, but the visitors had other ideas. Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino were the match winners with two second-half goals from the substitutes' bench.

The performance was poor, but it's all about results for Liverpool at this stage of the season in their pursuit for a top four finish.

Despite Stoke's midtable league position and a change from their rugged style under Tony Pulis, the bet365 Stadium remains a difficult place to go. Stoke had only lost once in their past nine previous Premier League home games, and that was close defeat to likely champions Chelsea.

The draw with Bournemouth in midweek meant that Liverpool needed a win in their hunt to secure Champions League qualification. With a depleted squad, Klopp rung the changes, opting for three at the back with a packed midfield and Divock Origi up front. Coutinho (ill) and Firmino (fatigue) were only fit enough to start on the bench.

Liverpool didn't adjust to their new approach at all in the opening 45 minutes and Stoke made the most their sluggish start. Xherdan Shaqiri had the ball in the net after less than three minutes, but it was correctly ruled out for offside. The Potters were dominant throughout the first half but had to wait until one minute before the break to get their rewards. Jonathan Walters nodded in Shaqiri's cross after Stoke's wingers continued to make the most of the space on the flanks.

To say the introductions of Coutinho and Firmino at the interval injected life into Liverpool would be quite the understatement. Coutinho was lively as soon as he stepped on to the pitch. He levelled in the 69th minute with a tidy finish, and retrieving the ball from the net sent the message that earning three points would be the only acceptable result.

Liverpool's second goal followed two minutes later, and it was simplicity at its very best. One long punt from Georginio Wijnaldum set Firmino free, and the forward converted by thumping a long-range effort over the helpless Lee Grant in the Stoke goal.

Stoke could have earned a point just minutes later had it not been for Simon Mignolet's wonderful save to deny Sadio Berahino his first goal in over a year.

It was not pretty, but Liverpool and Klopp have set out their stall for the run in: results are everything.

2. Coutinho and Firmino spare Klopp after selection gamble

Klopp was bold in his team selection, although his hand, due to a growing injury list, was largely forced. Ben Woodburn was handed his first Premier League start, while fellow youngster Trent Alexander-Arnold also appeared in the starting XI.

The German was roundly criticised for using a defensive back three when Liverpool were leading during the midweek 2-2 draw with Bournemouth, but Liverpool began with that formation here. That tactical change meant makeshift left-back James Milner made his first appearance in midfield this season.

Ultimately, the gamble didn't work and Klopp's half time substitutions proved as much. The young boys were hooked -- although Woodburn was perhaps carrying a knock after a heavy challenge in the first half -- and on came the big-hitters. Milner returned to his accustomed full-back slot, while Coutinho and Firmino lined up on the wings.

The Brazilian duo changed the game, in yet another example of their importance to this Liverpool team. Firmino's intelligence in the first half was missed, while Coutinho's ability to produce magic out of nothing has pulled Liverpool out of trouble on countless occasions this season.

3. Walters torments Liverpool again

Who would have thought a boyhood Everton supporter would enjoy scoring against Liverpool so much? Walters is officially Liverpool's current bogeyman.

Stoke boss Mark Hughes referenced at his prematch news conference that matches against Liverpool brings out something special in the 33-year-old frontman. His goal on Saturday was the seventh time he had put past the Merseyside outfit. He has scored against Liverpool more than any other opponent.

Walters missed the recent Burnley defeat due to a concussion, but he made a timely return to the fold here. His combative, physical style of play is perfect against Liverpool's defence.

The Reds may have had extra defenders on the pitch as a result of their system change, but Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan had a torrid afternoon, seemingly unable to deal with Walters' presence.

The trio welcomed the sight of No. 19 appearing on the fourth official's electronic board, with Walters receiving a standing ovation from all four corners of the ground as he made way in the 67th minute -- before Liverpool's two punishing blows.