Liverpool were held to a frustrating draw on Saturday lunchtime as Paul Lambert retained his impressive record of never losing at Anfield.
Jurgen Klopp was left irritated by a lack of ruthlessness and then several refereeing decisions that did not go his side’s way, but the result means Liverpool need four more points from their remaining two fixtures – against Chelsea and Brighton – to guarantee a place in the top four.
The Reds clearly had one eye on Wednesday night’s Champions League semi-final second leg, and with mounting injuries restricting team selection, they never found an elusive goal.
It was their fifth clean sheet in eight league matches, but that will be little consolation on a thoroughly muted Anfield outing.
Often when Liverpool are in need of a goal, Mo Salah is the man to provide, but on this occasion he could not.
This was the first time since Boxing Day that the Egyptian has not scored in a game he has started at Anfield, so he was due a low-key performance, and with Sadio Mané absent too, it was one player missing too far as far as the search for a goal went.
Salah attempted to chip Jack Butland when put through on goal by Jordan Henderson early in the first half, but uncharacteristically wasted the opportunity, putting it wide of the target.
Most of Anfield had already begun to celebrate given the usual efficiency of Salah’s finishing, and the shock of seeing him miss was quickly replaced by a feeling that he would get another chance, and he would not be so wasteful next time.
But there was not to be a next time. For the rest of the game, Salah was well-marshalled by Erik Pieters and the rest of the Stoke City defence; he had missed his big chance to score a 44th goal of the season and move one closer to Ian Rush's record of getting 47 in a single season for the Reds.
This was a far from typical display from the winger, who was subdued to say the least, no doubt saving energy for the more important fixtures to come in the next couple of weeks.
Mané badly missed
Senegalese forward Mané was missing from this game with a slight injury, not risked given the second leg in Rome to come, and how Liverpool missed him.
Danny Ings was placed wide left in his place, but the drop in quality was startling. This season, Mané has evolved from an out-and-out winger into more of a central figure in the Liverpool side, often found vacating the space in behind Roberto Firmino almost like a false number 10 coming off the left.
From there, he has been able to direct passes into Firmino and Salah and provide a slightly different threat to those two, but Ings is not the same player, and does not possess the same guile, awareness or speed.
Where Mané creates space for those around him by terrifying defenders with his combination of skill and pace, Ings is unable to replicate the same thing, and contributed to Liverpool taking too many touches and allowing Stoke to get back into shape.
Mané has missed chances himself in recent weeks, but makes up for that with many more that he creates for others. Without him, Liverpool did not look the same force.
Klopp confirmed after the game that “Sadio will be fine for Wednesday”. That is a huge relief.
Butland fails audition
Stoke stopper Butland has been linked with Liverpool multiple times over the years, and has been reported as being a target for the club this summer too, despite Loris Karius’ revival, but today should underline why there is no serious interest in him from Klopp and his staff.
The England goalkeeper fumbled multiple crosses that were simple catches in the same manner than Simon Mignolet became known for around Anfield, and his distribution was terrible on the day. He looked nervous in exactly the same manner that Mignolet used to before he was dropped from the team.
Butland is clearly lacking confidence, but this was a sure sign that he is not the man Liverpool should look to when looking to upgrade.
Stoke have conceded 65 goals in 36 league games this season, and with Butland in goal unable to perform simple tasks cleanly, it is no surprise.
Gomez still finding fitness
In the first half of the game in particular, Joe Gomez simply could not find a pass. On several occasions, he blasted the ball out for a goal kick so over-hit was the attempt, while several more found touch, evading either Trent Alexander-Arnold – playing in midfield for the first time since stepping up to the first team – or Salah, wide right.
The 20-year-old has only recently come back from injury, and ideally would not be in the team as he continues to recover, but with so few other options available, he was required.
Alexander-Arnold will find himself back in the team at full-back on Wednesday – as will Andy Robertson on the other side, with Alberto Moreno flattering to deceive again at left-back – but too much pressure should not be put on the shoulders of Gomez as he continues to learn.
He remains a key part of Liverpool's future, and may well find himself playing at centre-back, his favoured role, next season, when Nathaniel Clyne should have fully returned.
He has never been a marauding full-back, but today’s struggles can be put down mostly to rustiness, rather than a lack of ability.
He will just hope to get more minutes on the pitch to prove to Gareth Southgate that he is worthy of a place in England's squad for the World Cup in Russia. Adept at playing in a back-three and with Southgate a fan, he has more than half a chance, but he will need to get this rustiness out of his system.
Refereeing decisions costly
As much as Salah should have scored and Liverpool should have been able to create more chances for themselves, between referee Andre Marriner and his assistant on the Main Stand side of the pitch, the officials missed a blatant handball from Pieters after a Gini Wijnaldum cross.
“It’s a really poor decision from the referee and linesman and it’s cost us three points,” captain Henderson said, and it is difficult to disagree.
When compared to the penalty given against James Milner in the Champions League midweek, this one was far more obvious. It was a clear example of where VAR would have saved the officials blushes.
Had that been given, the narrative would have been different. Instead of lauding Liverpool for a title-winning mentality of finding a way on a tough afternoon, the story is that the top four places are still up for grabs.
So few penalties have been given in the Premier League for Liverpool this season that Tottenham Hotspur have won more at Anfield than the Reds thus far, with only one more home match left to play.
Liverpool now still need four points to guarantee a top four spot, starting away at Chelsea next weekend, although with their goal difference any win in a remaining fixture should get the Reds over the line.
Alternatively, winning their sixth European Cup in Kiev would lead to the same result, although they will hope to have it all tied up before then.
The focus now switches entirely to getting to that final by completing the job against AS Roma on Wednesday evening.