Raheem Sterling
Sterling dived to win Liverpool a penalty against Stoke.

Former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville has defended Raheem Sterling after the Liverpool winger dived to win a penalty against Stoke City in the win at the Britannia Stadium.

Potters boss Mark Hughes slammed the decision to award The Reds a spot kick with the score at 2-2, with Steven Gerrard's subsequent finish helping Brendan Rodgers' side towards victory.

Sterling went down after a coming together with defender Marc Wilson, a decision which Liverpool boss Rodgers himself labelled as "soft", but former United man Neville understands why the youngster took such action.

"I'm a little cynical about forwards in the sense that I think he's done exactly the right thing," Neville told Sky Sports. "He has cut right across the defender and Wilson put a lazy leg out, whereby you give the forward the opportunity.

"I'm quite calculated about this. For me, if that was an England player in the World Cup - and Raheem Sterling must be in with a shout of going to a World Cup because he's obviously a talented player in good form - you would want him to do exactly that; commit the defender and win your team the match.

"Be clever and win your team the match. You could be a brave soldier and stay on your feet - and I'm sure Raheem Sterling with his balance could have done - but for me he has done absolutely the right thing and has won his team the game.

"I've never changed my mind on this. I think when defenders stick those legs out, even though you could potentially argue it was a soft penalty - and it absolutely is - I think he has given the referee a decision to make and has given Sterling the opportunity to cut across him and win that contact.

"That, as a player, is something you try and draw out of a defender."

As Liverpool kept pace with the Premier League top three and maintained the gap ahead of Everton, Tottenham and United for the fourth Champions League place, Rodgers himself conceded his side were fortunate to benefit from referee Anthony Taylor's decision.

Following Gerrard's goal, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge's efforts extended Liverpool's lead and put the gloss on a fine performance.

But after successive defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea over the festive period, another test of the club's title metal comes in the next two months with games against Arsenal, United and Tottenham to come before the end of March.