A first-half goal from substitute Jordon Ibe gave Liverpool a 1-0 victory at Stoke City in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final at the Britannia Stadium.
Ibe’s cool finish after Joe Allen had diverted Adam Lallana’s cut-back into his path proved decisive for the record eight-time tournament winners in a match that saw few clear-cut opportunities.
The Anfield outfit had only won two of their last seven games coming into the clash, but produced a solid performance to take an advantage back to Merseyside for the second leg on January 26, with the only negative being hamstring injuries picked up by Philippe Coutinho and Dejan Lovren.
Stoke, who are bidding to make the final for the first time since 1972, had more possession, but struggled to make an impact going forward, with substitute Jonathan Walters wasting a glorious late chance.
Mark Hughes’ men were unchanged, while Jurgen Klopp made three alterations to bring in Kolo Toure, Allen and Lallana, with Christian Benteke – the only fit senior striker – among the players to drop to the bench, meaning Roberto Firmino started up front.
Liverpool were dominant in the early stages with Firmino and Lallana keeping Jack Butland busy as the England goalkeeper made solid stops from their two powerful long-range efforts.
The visitors’ momentum threatened to stall when Coutinho limped off with a hamstring injury after attempting to make a cross and Lovren was replaced with a hamstring problem of his own soon after, which was picked up while making a sliding clearance.
But Liverpool got the goal their played deserved in the 37th minute after substitute James Milner sent Lallana away down the right. The former Southampton star got to the byline and cut back to Joe Allen, whose sliced shot fell into path of Ibe to divert his finish across Butland and into the far corner.
Stoke’s best chance of the half went begging when Marko Arnautovic headed poorly wide from close range after Glen Johnson’s cross from the right.
Just before the break, Simon Mignolet had to get down well to deny Johnson as he stabbed a shot through a crowded box.
Referee Anthony Taylor was unmoved after Glenn Whelan went down under pressure from Alberto Moreno early in the second half, but the hosts were starting to look more threatening.
At the other end, Allen was also denied a spot-kick after being bundled over by Whelan in the build-up to Milner having a his goal-bound shot crucially blocked on the line by Erik Pieters.
Stoke pressed again when Joselu’s shot deflected off Toure and just over the crossbar, but the best chance was still to come.
The injury-hit visitors also had Toure limping for the final few minutes and almost paid the price when Walters raced through to shoot wide of the far post at the death.