Philippe Coutinho was taken ill against Bournemouth on Wednesday. Roberto Firmino was too exhausted to start at Stoke on Saturday, according to Jurgen Klopp. The Brazilians were sick and tired, respectively, but fortunately for Liverpool, they were up to delivering a second-half rescue act at the Bet365 Stadium.
"[Firmino] was at a point where it was clear if we tried to bring him through 90 minutes it would cause us real problems," Klopp said. "Phil lost three kilos in the last three days. For most of us here that would be good news but for Phil as a professional football player, it is not as good. This was the moment when every alarm clock was ringing for both of them."
Indeed, this was a defiant message from Klopp’s team – in one of the Premier League’s toughest away grounds – that they are not ready to quit the top-four chase just yet, with Arsenal and Manchester United held at bay once more.
It was a patched-up Liverpool but one in the second half which pulsated with the defiance of their manager. It might have been easy for any fan to take one look at their starting line-up and worry.
The jitters began here an hour before kick-off when the team sheets were distributed. Sadio Mane and Adam Lallana – as well as long-term absentee Jordan Henderson – were already ruled out but there were two more blows for Liverpool fans in the absences of Coutinho and Firmino.
It meant for the first time this Premier League season Jurgen Klopp was starting a match without any of his crucial front four, not to mention his captain. Liverpool’s Premier League record without Mane was worrying – no wins this season – but together the Brazilians had provided 17 goals and 15 assists between them.
The Reds went to a back three from the outset; usually an in-game option for Klopp and not one he had tried from the outset in any league game this season before now. It was an odd time to call for it. After the game Klopp admitted that his personnel had not even trained in the system selected for the day.
"We couldn't train it and that's what everybody could see," he said. "We didn't defend like we usually do so we couldn't play high pressure, we had to stay a little bit deeper."
It brought significant reshuffling of the team where Nathanial Clyne switched to left wing-back in order to accommodate Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right while, usual left-back James Milner went to centre-midfield.
From down that left side, Stoke scored the opener.
It was a day on which the stark limitations of Klopp’s squad threatened to come into full view and not many rival clubs would have been able to cope with the loss of so many first-choice players.
Despite the best endeavours of Ben Woodburn – Liverpool’s third-youngest starter – it was hard to know where the goals would come from in the Liverpool XI. Divock Origi was supposedly the senior partner in the strike partnership but offered little.
Half-time saw Klopp summon the cavalry. Clyne went to the right side, Milner to the left and Coutinho and Firmino were on. Immediately Liverpool improved. "We changed a little bit," Klopp said, "but only offensively. I though we could have played much better than we did."
Stoke had too much control of the ball in the first half and were allowed to play their game with too much ease but were backed into a corner in the second half.
There was a palpable sense that Stoke’s lead would not last. Firmino drew Lee Grant into action straight away. Coutinho stretched the Stoke goalkeeper with a solid effort shortly after and it was clear that the playmaker was having some influence.
Stoke looked edgier and edgier every time he picked up the ball and his ability to carry it deep meant the hosts were defending a lot deeper than they’d have liked.
He was, of course, the man to draw Liverpool level after Stoke failed to deal with a Can cross. His shot on the bounce nestled nicely in the corner to take him to 30 Premier League goals, a record for Brazilian. Then, 126 seconds later, his compatriot Firmino rifled home his 10th of the season, after latching onto a wonderful Wijnaldum through-ball.
Liverpool might not be possessed of many threats beyond their favoured front players but boy do those ones have power. Firmino whipped his shirt off to celebrate and it’s hard to imagine that Klopp did not feel like doing the same. How important these three points might be come the end of the season.
Had they lost this one, no doubt Klopp would have pointed to one key incident at the end of the first half. One minute Liverpool should have had a penalty – as good as a goal when James Milner is around – and the next they were 1-0 down. "Clear penalty," he said.
Woodburn’s shielding of the ball from Erik Pieters just inside the Stoke area at the end of the first half drew a rash challenge from the Dutchman and although referee Mike Dean had a good look at the tangle, he allowed play to continue.
Glen Johnson immediately chipped Xherdan Shaqiri in down the right flank and his cross found the evergreen Jon Walters at the front post to nod in.
It was the kind of sequence that could have only happened to Liverpool on a day like today, when too many of their big players were missing and when nothing appeared to be left in the tank.
They were without a win away from home in five matches and are contemplating a trip to the Hawthorns against West Bromwich Albion next week. They were losing players and in danger of losing momentum right at the wrong time.
But the goals from Coutinho and Firmino – not to mention a miracle save by Simon Mignolet from Saido Berahino in the second half to preserve the lead – did the trick.
This was not the prettiest of victories but certainly one of the more satisfactory ones. As Klopp commented, afterwards: "It's absolutelty massive. It's really special. You could feel it immediately in the dressing room. Everyone was like: 'that's very important' but we have to prove it next week and next week and next week. It feels outstandingly good at this moment."