Three new boys on their debut, a manager in his second season, winless in season openers, a bogey opponent, bright start, woodwork, dominant in possession, incorrect refereeing decisions, missed chances, woodwork again, a goalkeeper on the form of his career, and a penalty. This is Liverpool's reality. It's been reality for the past few seasons, and today was no different. Except that it was, and none of the familiar foes conspired to take points away as Liverpool grinded out a narrow 1-0 victory at Anfield to start their 2013/2014 campaign with a win.
Liverpool 1: Sturridge 37'
Stoke City 0
It started with the slightest of surprises--Liverpool's eleven was mostly as expected, though the inclusion of Jordan Henderson over Joe Allen was a bit unexpected considering the impressive form of the diminutive Welshman through Liverpool's preseason. The aforementioned debutantes arrived as predicted, with Simon Mignolet in goal, Kolo Toure partnering Daniel Agger in central defense, Iago Apas on the right of a three-man front line with Daniel Sturridge central and Philippe Coutinho left, and Luis Alberto included on a bench that was light on defensive reinforcements.
Much had been made of the difficulty Stoke would have transitioning to non-agrarian football after the dismissal of Tony Pulis, and the early going made it clear that Mark Hughes' squad were in transition. Slightly nervy in the passing game, they sank deeper as Liverpool dominated possession and pressed, content to hit on the counter and batter the hosts at every available opportunity.
They managed to get the best chance of the early going in typical fashion as well, relying on discord in the opposition penalty area from a set piece to create a goalscoring chance. Simon Mignolet whiffed on a cross, leaving the goal open for Robert Huth to control and smash a half-volley from close range off the crossbar. Liverpool answered in frighteningly familiar fashion, first with a Sturridge header correctly ruled offside (only just), and then with Toure's bulleted header matching Huth as it crashed against the crossbar.
Were it not for Asmir Begovic, Liverpool could have been two or three goals to the good at the break, with chances from the impressive Iago Aspas, Jordan Henderson, and Sturridge all saved well. The breakthrough finally came in the 37th minute, though as Sturridge fired a low drive through the legs of Huth and past Begovic, giving Liverpool a lead their dominance deserved. The visitors very nearly leveled during a nervy final stretch before the half, but Simon Mignolet's excellent save from Jonathan Walters' snap-shot preserved the lead.
The second half saw more of Liverpool pushing forward, with a solid back line turning away any Stoke threats and Lucas controlling the midfield areas with energetic pressing and timely tackling. Again chances came, and again Begovic proved nigh-on unbeatable. Efforts from Coutinho and Aspas ended wide, but the one-time Liverpool target made unbelievable saves on both Sturridge and Henderson--twice, first on a left-footed curler and next with a fingertip deflection to push a well-struck shot to the far post--to keep the deficit to one goal.
Further saves on Steven Gerrard's curling free-kick and a close-range Glen Johnson shot gave way to a spell of Stoke momentum and a terrifying finish; Liverpool's only change came in the form of Raheem Sterling, who added a bit of pace, while Stoke added both Charlie Adam and Jermaine Pennant to the mix, giving the visitors three former Liverpool players on the pitch for a spell over the final third of the match, which would provide an unwatchable amount of tension.
In the 88th minute a Daniel Agger handball from a Stoke set piece looked to break Liverpool hearts, with the newly-appointed vice captain flailing thoughtlessly and clearly making contact his right hand. Step up Simon Mignolet, who rattled the crossbar in anticipation and guessed correctly, getting down quickly to his right to save Walters' spot-kick and the subsequent follow-up from Kenwyne Jones. The resulting corner was cleared as well, and it proved to be the last tuly nervy moment before the final whistle.
And that's the narrative turned on its head. Liverpool don't get a penalty save in the dying minutes, they don't defend set pieces with some semblance of competence, and they don't overcome the crossbar or opposition goalkeepers on fantastic form to get all three points. That's just not a part of the deal for the Liverpool we've come to know over the past few seasons.
Yet here we are, celebrating three points on the season's opening day. It wasn't a perfect display by any stretch--Liverpool were sloppy in stretches and are still a living, breathing panic attack defending set pieces--but it's exactly the type of match that results in a draw or loss after they lose their head and concede before the half on a flash of brilliance from the opposition. Simon Mignolet's double-save at the end--a kingmaker moment if there ever was one--spared the points, but the side's ability to grit and grind throughout the match meant they were able to hold on throughout.
Lucas was, for me, the clear man of the match, edging in front of impressive performances by Mignolet, Kolo Toure, Jordan Henderson, and Iago Aspas. The Brazilian was tireless in his pressing and looked every bit the player we'd hoped for at the start of last season, while the other mentioned each impressed (three in their Liverpool debuts) in their own right. Mignolet's impact was clear, Aspas was lively and promising in attack, Henderson deserved each of his 90 minutes despite the lack of finishing, and Toure's got all the makings of a cult hero after a very good performance alongside Daniel Agger, who was mostly good but also well aware of the potential cost of his late mistake.
Nice 3 points today. Great with 90 min. After 2 weeks out!!! And Yes I know it, I owe Simon a Pint:)) Y.N.W.A— Daniel Agger (@DanielAgger) August 17, 2013
Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique were improved in their own right; Enrique had his usual moments of madness and brilliance throughout while proving strong defensively, and Johnson grew into the match after a shaky opening. Steven Gerrard was patient if unspectacular, while Philippe Coutinho's vision and delivery left us breathless on a number of occasions. Daniel Sturridge was rusty and eventually tired, no question, but he's got the class and the demeanor to see Liverpool through the early season stretch, especially with the quality Liverpool showed in support today.
There will be more difficult matches, more stressful ones, and probably more important ones. But today feels awfully important in its own right, and it's one that can give us hope as the club kick on into the new season on the front foot.