Simon Mignolet the hero as Liverpool top Stoke, reach Capital One Cup final
Liverpool scratched and fought their way to another Wembley final -- their first in four years -- but needed a penalty shootout to do so against a Stoke side that will feel they should have won in normal time. Their goal shouldn't have stood, as Marko Arnautovic appeared offside, but Stoke were the better side for most of the evening.
The much-maligned Simon Mignolet was the man of the hour, as he saved two penalties, including a vital, sudden-death effort from the unfortunate Marc Muniesa, to secure the Merseyside club a 6-5 win on penalties. Few players covered themselves in glory during a jittery first 120 minutes that saw lots of effort but very little creativity.
After Saturday's breathless 5-4 win over Norwich and now this, fans will feel Jurgen Klopp is fated to succeed as Liverpool manager. It doesn't matter how you get to a final as long as you do, but numerous questions will be asked about some, if not all, of the players in this performance.
Player ratings: (1-10, with 10 the best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Simon Mignolet, 7 -- He had little to do but again saw the opposition's first effort on target go past him. This unwanted run has gone on for too long, but the Belgian showed a little more security in the air, as Stoke reverted to their Tony Pulis days with Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters often a real handful. He came to the fore during the penalties and was ultimately the key figure in Liverpool's progression.
DF Jon Flanagan, 6 -- It was great to see him back, but obviously, it will take time before he reaches full match fitness. He kept things solid, which only emphasized how much Liverpool missed Nathaniel Clyne's attacking contribution. Visibly tiring by the 75th minute, he did well to last halfway through extra time without endangering his team's chances.
DF Kolo Toure, 6 -- He found his opponents a bit too strong and quick at times but kept his concentration and helped his side stay level in the tie. In a game in which the home side rarely gave their defence many breathers, he had to be alert on numerous occasions. He was understandably withdrawn as extra time approached.
DF Mamadou Sakho, 7 -- This was a gargantuan effort from the Frenchman, and he just about came out on top in his personal duel with Walters, as he blocked the Irish international's shots on several occasions when a second goal seemed likely. On a night when Liverpool's defence always looked at full stretch, he helped get Liverpool to the finish line where the penalty-takers and goalkeeper did the rest.
DF Alberto Moreno, 5 -- This was once again a night that convinced many that the Spaniard's future is at left-wing rather than left-back. Positional failings saw him caught out on several occasions in the first half, including for the goal. He was better after that and always provided an attacking outlet, but that's another game in which his impetuosity has been punished. Klopp must be concerned now.
MF Lucas Leiva, 7 -- Seemingly repelling Stoke singlehandedly at one stage, he made another move into the back four and never let the Reds down. He took a cool penalty on his 300th Liverpool appearance and was a rock when others were a letdown.
MF Emre Can, 6 -- He worked hard, but again, his passing wasn't up to scratch. He missed his penalty just after his keeper gained an advantage and will be relieved the miss wasn't fatal.
MF James Milner, 6 -- "Worked hard but created little" seemed to be the story of Liverpool's night, and Milner was no exception. His set pieces were hugely disappointing. In open play, he would often look up and find nobody in the box.
MF Jordan Henderson, 5 -- Plainly not fit, he lasted only 57 minutes. He seemed to have instructions to protect Flanagan on his return to first-team duties but let that distract him from any other worthwhile contribution.
MF Adam Lallana, 6 -- Another who worked hard, he suffered from confusion over his role in the team. He tried to support Firmino but was often chasing Stoke shadows. A well-taken opening penalty seemed to be his only solid contribution to the evening.
FW Roberto Firmino, 5 -- He was back to his bad ways again, although that was understandable, as Stoke's work rate made his first touch nervous and sloppy. He did better after Christian Benteke came on but still seemed to tire easily and meandered through the rest of the game.
FW Christian Benteke, 5 -- He replaced Henderson but was a big letdown. Service was again questionable, though his reluctance to really use his strength to bully defenders or get into the dangerous areas must have had Klopp tearing his hair out. Not just drinking in the last-chance saloon, he might have taken residence.
MF Joe Allen, NR -- Once again, the Welshman gets no rating, despite his making a telling contribution to the game. His late equalizer against Arsenal was important and his penalty even more so, as it confirmed Liverpool's place at Wembley. He didn't contribute too much in extra time, despite his fitness advantage, but really there was little he could do to inspire a tired, struggling team.
MF, Jordon Ibe, NR -- He replaced Flanagan for the final 15 minutes but did little of note. It was hard to get up to speed in a frenetic and important match such as this, but he surely could have made more use of his time and possession.
Steven Kelly writes about Liverpool for ESPN FC and has a weekly Liverpool column for The Irish Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.