By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer at the Britannia Stadium
Kuyt and Liverpool could find no way past Whelan or Stoke's defence
Stoke City earned a deserved point against Liverpool as the Premier League leaders produced a lifeless performance at the Britannia Stadium.
Rory Delap came closest to breaking the deadlock for Stoke early on when he rattled the bar from close range - and Liverpool could have had no complaints if Tony Pulis' side had claimed all three points.
But captain Steven Gerrard almost snatched the win Liverpool's display barely merited when he angled a free-kick against the bar with six minutes left, then struck a post in stoppage time.
Liverpool never exerted any serious dominance over Stoke, failing to increase the pressure on Manchester United and Chelsea ahead of their meeting at Old Trafford on Sunday.
The game was played out in front of a typically vibrant atmosphere - and in front of Argentina coach Diego Maradona, who was a guest of honour at the Britannia Stadium who was no doubt keeping an eye on Liverpool's Javier Mascherano.
We had chances to win - Benitez
And it was against the backdrop of Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez's public tirade against his Manchester United counterpart Sir Alex Ferguson in his pre-match press conference on Friday.
But his players failed to follow his defiant words with actions, leaving both Manchester United and Chelsea with the opportunity to close in on the Reds.
Benitez left strike pair Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane on the bench, and lone striker Dirk Kuyt had Liverpool's two best opportunities of a combative first 45 minutes.
Kuyt should have given the visitors the lead after only seven minutes, but he glanced an inviting cross from Albert Riera yards wide.
But Stoke were refusing to take a backward step, and only the woodwork prevented them from taking the lead four minutes later.
Delap's initial throw posed no threat, but when Liverpool failed to clear he appeared at the far post, only to crash a shot against the bar from eight yards with Richard Cresswell unable to turn in the rebound.
Liverpool were ordered and composed in the early stages, and it took a fine block from Stoke keeper Thomas Sorensen to deny Kuyt again when he found space in the penalty area.
The Potters then dominated possession for the remainder of the opening period, with Ryan Shawcross seeing a header ruled out for offside.
Pulis' side had more than matched Liverpool, but the sight of Torres warming up with intent during the break was a signal of threat that was awaiting them.
Pepe Reina almost gifted Stoke an opener after 49 minutes when his wayward clearance found Dave Kitson, and even though he rounded the Reds keeper he could only find the side-netting.
The visitors had not displayed any menace in the second half, and it was no surprise when Torres was introduced on the hour - indeed the only surprise was that it had not happened earlier.
Pulis praises Stoke display
Stoke were finally put under pressure in the 67th minute when Gerrard's free-kick sparked an outbreak of mass confusion, but Lucas chose to head across goal from point-blank range and Sami Hyypia's final effort was well off target.
Liverpool had coped well with Delap's trademark long throws, but they almost conceded with 17 minutes left, only for Kitson to head over from only eight yards.
And Glenn Whelan was only inches away with a curling free-kick with Reina well beaten as Stoke applied pressure once more.
Liverpool are never more dangerous than in the closing stages of a deadlock, and Gerrard almost did the trick again with a swerving free-kick that bounced to safety off the bar.
And the home supporters held their breath as Gerrard then steered a shot against the post in the dying seconds - but that would have been a cruel climax for a Stoke side who delivered a tireless display.
Stoke manager Tony Pulis:
"It was a good performance today and we created some good chances. On another day we could even have won.
"Liverpool play a certain way and get players in certain areas to outnumber you. It was very important that we stayed disciplined.
"Our performances recently have not been as bad as our results. In the last two games we have shot ourselves in the foot. This is a smashing result."
Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez:
"Today was a difficult, different to the other one [0-0 draw with Stoke] at Liverpool. Then we created a lot of chances and had a lot of opportunities.
"This one was more difficult. We started well and had control of the game. They had a lot of options in terms of belief and we lost control.
"It is a game we could win but we could also have lost too, and it was important not to lose. When we play against 10 men and an organised team it is not easy."
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