In a fantastic opening result for the Reds, Daniel Sturridge scored from well outside the box and Simon Mignolet produced an outstanding penalty and follow-up shot save to prove the heroes. Although this is true and Brendan Rodgers was full of praise for his squad in his post-match press conference, the contest was not without its shaky moments for Liverpool.
With the greatly missed sound of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” ringing around Anfield, it was suddenly known that the 2013/14 Premier League season was upon us. Kicking off before the rest of the league, Liverpool had a great chance to make an early statement for the rest of their season which they have so often failed to do in recent years, whilst also having the opportunity to score the first goal of the new campaign. This game also made the Premier League the first league worldwide to utilise Hawkeye, the new goal-line technology.
The fixture aloud new faces Iago Aspas, Simon Mignolet and Kolo Toure to be handed their Premier League home debuts for the club, whilst Luis Suarez was present in his club kit still to serve six games from a ten game ban. Suarez was full of smiles amidst reports he is due to stay with Liverpool following apologies to the team and management after one of the biggest transfer saga’s of the summer.
The early exchanges saw both teams with very genuine chances, featuring both centre-backs thundering efforts against the crossbar. Robert Huth had a wonderful chance for Stoke after Mignolet got an early nervous punch on a long cross intended for former Liverpool man, Peter Crouch. The ball landed to Huth thirteen yards out with just three Liverpool men defending the goal line, however the crossbar was as far as the effort would get. Minutes later, Liverpool new man Kolo Toure had a flying header thump the crossbar from a Steven Gerrard corner. The Ivorians frustration was evident however the effort could not be faultered.
Add onto this Daniel Sturridge hitting the net in the 12th minute only to be ruled offside just as Anfield was about to explode and you can be ensured the early exchanges were not without excitement.
As the game began to grow Liverpool started to gain momentum, Aspas, Sturridge and Coutinho all had chances but either saw their attemps go wide or came up against a very much in form Stoke goalkeeper in Asmir Begovic. Liverpool further dominated however Begovic continued to deny the Reds, Jose Enrique saw a near post shot shut-down in the 29th minute whilst Henderson put a left-footed effort from the centre of the box straight at Begovic in the 34th.
The Liverpool faithful began to grow ever frustrated as it seemed Begovic was unbeatable and was threatening to deny them any chance of a goal or three points, however just as the half seemed to fizzle out to a 0-0 half time scoreboard, up stepped Daniel Sturridge. A quick exchange between Sturridge, Lucas and Aspas culminating in a return ball to Sturridge which saw the Englishman measure himself and beautifully strike a left-footed shot through the legs of Stoke defender Robert Huth, which skid across the rain affected Anfield pitch, crashed into the right side netting and slid into the back of the net from 23 yards. Liverpool had the first goal of the season as Anfield erupted.
The final eight minutes of the half saw Stoke come close to an equaliser through a great effort from Jonathan Walters just on the edge of the box, although he was to be denied by a solid save from a diving Simon Mignolet. Sturridge and Coutinho continued to surge forward in the half’s final moments whilst Stoke had an attacking free kick and two corners but both teams efforts were to no avail and the teams went into the sheds 1-0 to Liverpool at half-time.
The second half saw both teams come out with renewed intent, Liverpool trying to put a team away, something that has so often deluded them in recent times and Stoke trying to work a way back into the match. However the Reds continued to dominate proceedings and further chances came to Aspas heading a corner wide, Henderson thumping the woodwork, Coutinho shaping one past the far post and Sturridge shut down at the near post.
On 63 minutes more former Liverpool men now playing for Stoke in the form of Jermaine Pennant and Charlie came on to inject width and intent into the Potter’s forward play. Although initially looking promising their presence continued to fade as Liverpool gained further control, right up until the 82nd minute when a halfway shot from Adam almost embarrassed a backpedalling Mignolet.
The game continued at a steady pace throughout the second half as the Reds directed traffic, Liverppol’s only substitution coming in the 72nd minute as Raheem Sterling replaced Iago Aspas. Sterling went out wide meaning Sturridge switched central as he continued to look nothing like a player who had only gotten two weeks of preseason under his belt returning from an ankle complaint. Begovic continued to be the man keeping Stoke in the contest as he produced another gem of a save from a trademark Gerrard free kick in the 79th.
Chants of “When the Reds go marching in” rang around Anfield lead by fans at the Kop end as all Reds supporters sensed the contest drawing closer to the 90th minute mark. Both teams continued to play end-to-end football in the last ten minutes although Stoke’s attacks didn’t look to be overly threatening. However this all changed in the 88th minute when Daniel Agger took his eyes off the ball in the box leading to a handball from the usually reliable centre back from a Charlie Adam free kick. The mood around Anfield quickly changed as boos and concerned looks became a sudden feature as Stoke looked to snatch an undeserved point. Jonathan Walters placed the ball on the spot as debut goalkeeper Simon Mignolet jumped up and down on the spot, hitting the cross-bar in an attempt to throw Walters and get the crowd roaring.
Walters stepped forward and hit the ball into the ground and left, bobbling up to a diving Mignolet who could only parry. This lead to a follow-up effort from 81st minute Stoke substitute Kenwyne Jones, which Mignolet managed to get back on his feet and throw himself in front of leading to the ball going behind, an even better save then the one from the penalty. Mignolet was mobbed in a sea of red jerseys by his team-mates as the stadium erupted, however the Belgian goalkeeper urged teammates to pay attention to the upcoming Stoke corner rather than take the instant praise, a sign of true class. Suddenly the job of replacing Pepe Reina became a little easier as Mignolet proved a match saver.
The final minutes closed out with Liverpool trying to maintain possession and doing an effective job, fans were whistling for well over a minute until the real whistle came and the match was over, Liverpool had won the match and their first mission was complete.
The players left the pitch to a standing ovation and deafening applause from supporters, appreciating the first up effort and result their team had produced. Much of the post-match talk was centred on Mignolet with manager Brendan Rodgers quoted as saying, “he’s a top keeper, he’ll go on here and become one of the greats here.” The praise didn’t end there with Rodgers going onto proclaim, “he’s hungry to become a star…I believe he will, every day he wants to learn and improve”, “When you’ve got a top goalkeeper it can save you many points.”
Simon Mignolet himself was quoted as saying, ”Very pleased we got the three points and a clean sheet as that’s the most important thing” , “Obviously if you save a penalty in the last minute of your debut in the Premier League, you’re a happy man.”
The stats tell the story of the match including Liverpool having 25 attempts on goal to Stokes 11, corners also in Liverpool’s favour 8-3 and the Reds having 55% of possession in contrast to the visitors 45%. Asmir Begovic’s man of the match effort proving to be the main reason the margin was not more than one goal.
All in all, a fantastic result for Liverpool after a strong preseason but one laced with controversy and speculation. This win can hopefully prove the foundation block to build a season where Liverpool aims to push back into the top four or perhaps mount a title challenge. If this is to happen though, they will need one Luis Suarez back on the pitch and in form whilst one more addition before the close of the transfer window may not go astray either. However, an opening day win and 3 points from their first game, Liverpool players, staff and fans have reason to be happy for now.