Dan Holland reports on a very encouraging start to the campaign that could and should have been far more comfortable.
The return of the football season, fresh hope and expectation creates a special feeling which is unparalleled even in cup finals and ‘must win’ games. I had been counting down the days to today at work as to me it had felt like a very long summer albeit a busy one for Liverpool Football Club. The early summer saw four new arrivals, 3 of whom we witnessed in competitive action for the first time today; the latter period saw a number of players leaving the club presumably making way for further additions. There was of course one constant and that was Suarezgate, but as Brendan had alluded to in the week, enough talk now it’s time for the action.
Now first games are usually bathed in sunshine, but today the weather forgot to read the script and provided us with thick clouds and at time torrential rain. The Liverpool line up was as many predicted with the only surprise for some was Jordan Henderson in for Joe Allen. Simon Mignolet, Kolo Toure and Iago Aspas were making their full debuts, Daniel Sturridge was returning from injury and Daniel Agger was starting for the first time as vice-captain.
As I’ve already said on the way to the ground it felt like it had been a long summer but the minute I had entered through the turnstile it was like I’d never been away, familiar faces, familiar sights and smells and of the course the immaculate looking hallowed turf all served to heighten my hope and expectation for what I’m confident will be another step forward under an increasing impressive Brendan Rogers.
The game got underway and the Reds were very quick out of the blocks playing a very high tempo game and pressing the Stoke players at every opportunity. Although the opening exchanges were frenetic there was no free flowing football or space for our match winners to operate in. Liverpool lined up with Jordan Henderson occupying a right side of midfield road, Phillipe Coutinho was on the left hand side, with Iago Aspas playing just behind Daniel Sturridge. When it was apparent this formation wasn’t being as productive as it could be BR quickly changed it to the more familiar 4-3-3 with Henderson pushing inside alongside Gerrard and Lucas and Aspas and Coutinho played either side of Sturridge.
It appeared to me as though Coutinho was the main reason for the formation change as he was afforded the space and ball time that he craves and ultimately is the key for us in the creativity stakes. As the game developed Coutinho proved his intelligence and ability as he grew into the game and found space to operate in. As Phillipe became more involved Liverpool created more chances and took total control of the first half.
Liverpool fans – me included – thought we had taken the lead in the 11th minute when Daniel Sturridge headed in a Steven Gerrard corner, only for the linesmans flag to put an end to the celebrations. This was the start of a very impressive period where Liverpool could have put the game out of sight. Firstly Kolo Toure struck the crossbar with a thunderous header, then Daniel Sturridge had a shot cleared off the line, Jose Enrique was the next to be denied this time by the very impressive Begovic in the Stoke goal. The next player to be thwarted by Begovic was Jordan Henderson who squandered possibly the easiest chance of the half.
It appeared as though it was only a matter of time before the deadlock was broken and this was proved right in the 37th minute when Daniel Sturridge scored with a very impressive low drive into the bottom corner of the goal. The goal came not five minutes after Sturridge asked the bench for new boots with longer studs, obviously struggling in the rain, the boots never appeared but it didn’t seem to impact the forwards goalscoring ability.
Despite Liverpools obvious superiority Stoke did threaten mainly from set pieces, which was probably to be expected given their reputation as a team. Although early signs under Mark Hughes are that they may play a bit more football something that didn’t go unnoticed by their own fans as they sang “where Stoke City and we’re passing the ball”
Simon Mignolet wasn’t having the most impressive of debuts as he struggled with two or three crosses and nearly caught got in possession on a couple of occasions. Having said that he did pull off a fantastic save from a Jonathan Walters turn and shot. Kolo Toure was showing his class and power at the back in what was a very impressive first half for the Ivorian, when his header hit the bar his determination to be successful was so apparent, as he began his run back to the halfway line he was berating himself all the way – great signing Brendan, well done.
I have seen a number of comments during the summer about needing a new defensive midfielder and that Lucas is still a weakness, if anyone that still thinks that after this game I will be amazed. The willowy Brazilian was faultless throughout the full 90 minutes but more obviously in the first half. He broke up attack after attack, he was strong in the tackle and was careful and tidy in possession, the difference in his game from last season is he’s had a full pre-season and the benefits of this were obvious. The first half drew to a close and a very encouraging 45 minutes was greeted with very warm applause.
Liverpool’s superiority continued into the second half as almost immediately Coutinho put a shaped shot just past the far post at the Kop end. The chances were flowing as a Henderson shot was well saved by the Stoke goalkeeper, Sturridge put one just wide, an Aspas header flashed past the far post from another Gerrard corner, Jordan Henderson hit the post with a shot that from my seat looked in all the way and finally the Skipper had a free kick tipped over the bar by Begovic who must have been man of the match but for me Lucas takes the award for Liverpool.
In the last 15 minutes Stoke became more of a threat with ex red Charlie Adam pulling the strings, something he failed to do in his time at Anfield. The Scotland man tried an audacious effort from the halfway line which Mignolet managed to tip over his bar. Then in the 87th minute it looked as though Liverpools hard work and vast superiority wouldn’t be rewarded as Agger inexplicably handled a Stoke free kick resulting in a Stoke penalty. When I saw Walters step up I realised we had a chance as I remembered him missing at least two spot kicks last season and thankfully my optimism was founded as Mignolet pulled off a fine save and even better one when preventing Kenwyn Jones from tapping in the rebound. Suddenly Mignolets faults in the first half were soon forgotten and the Belgian was immediately elevated to hero status.
Three valuable points in the bag. In the closing minutes Brendan was prowling the touchline with a fairly angry look on his face, whether this was due to Aggers moment of madness or our inability to keep hold of the ball in the closing minutes I’m not sure. What was very obvious though was how different BR was through the majority of the game. Last season he was never sat down, he was coaching his players through every minute and talking to them at every opportunity. Today however he was sat down on the bench for long periods, this tells me he now has a team, a style of play and a formation that not only is he happy with but also one that he has confidence in, another very positive sign for the season.