Summer. That long period of time that football fans hate. When the league finishes and it is weeks before another ball is kicked competitively. Every two years it’s made worse due to there being no World Cup or European Championships to fill that gap. Well, as of yesterday, it’s finally over and the Barclays Premier League kicked off once again.
The setting for the curtain raiser just so happened to be Anfield this season. Liverpool would get the chance to kick of the season at home, and their opposition was Stoke. The glorious green carpet on the field, the red netting in the goals, the Kop End were all ready to start us off again.
Liverpool had spent the summer bringing in a number of new purchases, and the question for most fans would be how those new purchases would fit into the squad, if at all. Stoke, however, had been ringing the changes from their end too. Gone was rugby aficionado Tony Pulis, and in his place came Mark Hughes. Would we see the same bullying Stoke from the last few seasons, or would we see a sudden change towards attacking football that Mark Hughes seems to favour? It promised to be an interesting curtain raiser, would it be exciting though?
Given the various outgoing players from Liverpool, the starting lineup didn’t really throw up too many surprises:
Johnson, Agger, Toure, Enrique
Gerrard, Lucas, Henderson
Coutinho, Aspas, Sturridge
Sturridge was maybe the only uncertainty, as he was maybe still a little bit off his full match fitness; and Joe Allen might have expected a start, but for me Henderson is a far better total package than Joe Allen. Henderson is far more athletic and capable of doing a job defensively than Joe Allen and that give Gerrard a bit more freedom. With Coutinho, Aspas and Sturridge up front, the need for Joe Allen to go forward and get in the box (which he does better than Henderson) was less of a need than having Gerrard being able to spread the ball around.
Stoke’s team was mostly similar to last season:
Pieters, Huth, Shawcross, Cameron
Whelan, N’Zonzi, Wilson, Etherington, Walters
Four solid defenders with the two wingers capable of coming back to defend as needed, Crouch as the lone striker with support from the wingers and midfielders as needed. Despite Mark Hughes stepping in, you wouldn’t expect the players to suddenly all change their mentality. You would still expect a physicality from those players, and you would expect their biggest threat to come from set pieces and long balls into the box.
The match started brightly enough for Liverpool, with the first six minutes being all Liverpool and Stoke hardly even getting to touch the ball. However, a quick counter from them saw them win a corner. From the resulting corner, the set piece threat came into play, along with Liverpool’s inability to defend them well enough. Crouch had half a chance which was poorly cleared, the ball fell to Huth who’s shot hit the cross bar. Stoke then saw a couple of minutes where they had a decent bit of possession, but from there on out to the end of the half, it was back to being predominantly Liverpool’s game.
It was once again back to watching some glorious football, but lacking that ability to get the ball in the back of the net. Some of that was down to Begovic, who pulled off some great saves; others were down to poor final third decisions; and one of those was Sturridge’s goal being disallowed, rightly, for offside:
Almost the perfect run, just slightly misjudged. Twenty minutes later though, Sturridge was not to be denied. A fantastic strike from outside the box, and as soon as he struck it, he was already getting himself set up for THAT goal celebration of his:
However, whilst Liverpool did control most of the game, there were the odd chances for Stoke, and Mignolet was forced to make a superb save just before the break, to maintain Liverpool’s lead:
The second half ended up being more of the same from Liverpool. Some great moves were seeing the best of Begovic in the Stoke goal. There was some fabulous build up play, with Coutinho once again shining with his well timed runs and great passes. Sturridge and Aspas looked to be working well with both having chances; and Henderson, Johnson and Enrique all playing their part in the attacking part of the pitch.
With just over ten minutes to go, Liverpool won a free-kick some distance outside the box, and Stevie Gerrard stepped up to take it. He struck a wonderful freekick, only to be denied once again by Begovic:
Ten minutes later, Liverpool faced their own set piece. With Charlie Adam stood behind the ball, in perfect territory for the ball to be launched into the box, and mere minutes left on the clock, it was prime territory for a Stoke equaliser. As the ball came into the box, it evaded nearly everybody, but Agger. His flying attempt to clear the ball unfortunately also meant his hand was perfectly placed to meet that ball. The referee waited to see if there was any advantage, but in the end the penalty was awarded to Stoke. For most Liverpool fans it just seemed to cruel, and yet so predictable. Dominate the game, fail to put away the chances, only for one tiny error to come back and bite them late in the game. Mignolet on the other hand had only one thing on his mind…. Stoke had not scored at Anfield since the Premier League began. Letting a goal in would destroy that. Doing that on his debut even from a penalty might somehow statistically make him the keeper that let Stoke score, and so this happened:
What followed from there was what can only be described as, in the words of a red nosed drunkard , “squeaky bum time”. Stoke won a couple of corners, which were poorly cleared, and Liverpool fans suddenly anxious for that final whistle to blow. The fourth official stepped out with the board, with every Liverpool fan hoping for it to say zero, but three showed up, which later became four with a slight handbag moment in injury time. Liverpool held on for the win, and with that they were top of the Barclays Premiership, for the first time in ages.
Man of the match was Mignolet, although Coutinho was a close second. Mignolet has a lot to prove this season, he was a fantastic keeper at Sunderland, but he’s stepping into a bigger limelight now. He has to fill the boots of one of Liverpool’s best keepers in history, and this first game in the Premier League shows that he has what it takes to contribute to Liverpool’s success. Coutinho would maybe have won it, were it not for the penalty save, and had Liverpool converted more of their chances.
A win is always a great way to start the season, and together with some of the great football that we saw it bodes well for reasonable season. It is of course way too early to start the call for champions, or even top four, but a great start towards it nonetheless. We do still need to be more clinical in front of goal, and we have to start working on defending set pieces a lot better, but it is still early in the season. We are still apparently looking for new players, and it does seem likely finally the Suarez saga may have come to an end.
As a football fan I’m ecstatic that the season has started again, and as a Liverpool fan I’m happy to see us playing wonderful football and winning games. I’m also quietly confident that this is going to be a better season than last year, but then it has to be. Finishing seventh with no trophy is just not good enough, not when money has been made available for player purchases, without losing core players.