Sunday, 18 August 2013

Stoke put to the sword in opening day win

What a great game to kick-off the season!

If the opening game of the 2013/2014 Premier League season between Liverpool and Stoke City is anything to go by then football fans are in for a treat. It was a match that had almost everything. Efforts against the cross bar, disallowed goals and late drama that saw a debutant goalkeeper make an exceptional save from a spot kick to become the hero of the afternoon despite earlier evident nervousness.

Even though the only thing to ultimately separate the sides on a wet lunchtime on Merseyside was Daniel Sturridge’s fantastic first half strike, the match was certainly far more entertaining as a spectacle than many expected heading into the contest. The last two times these teams faced off at Anfield the outcome was a goalless draw, while the visitors had failed to find the net once in five attempts at Anfield in the Premier League. As a result, despite the optimism generated by an encouraging run of positive pre-season results, many Kopites anticipated a difficult, bruising encounter with limited goalmouth activity to entertain the spectators.

Liverpool were desperate to seal three points at home on the opening day of the season for the first time since Michael Owen’s brace sunk West Ham United in 2001, and this was reflected by their early dominance. However, the away side were the first to go close to opening the scoring, Huth smashing  a strike against the bar following a goalmouth scramble started by Mignolet nervously flapping at a corner.

Thankfully, though, Stoke failed to build on that early chance. Stuck in their defensive ways despite the best efforts of new boss Mark Hughes, the Potters played far too deep throughout, fatally allowing Steven Gerrard the freedom to pull the proverbial strings from deep. The number eight took advantage of Stoke’s tactical naivety and negative approach, providing the beating heart of the Reds’ expansive style during the first 45 minutes.

Unexpectedly, the away side, who were giants compared to the dwarfs in Red, even struggled to deal with the skipper’s set pieces, as Sturridge headed one of Gerrard’s set pieces into the net but rightly saw his goal ruled out for offside before Toure headed another Gerrard delivery against the woodwork.

As bad as Stoke were, Liverpool’s attack was also firing on all cylinders, with the quartet of Coutinho, Sturridge, Aspas and Henderson interchanging positions in a delightfully fluid manner, linking up superbly and showing that there is far more to the Reds’ front line than a certain spoilt number seven. Behind them, Lucas was the perfect foil to Steven Gerrard, breaking up play and using the ball wisely, allowing Gerrard to concentrate on supporting the attack.

Enrique and Henderson both had great opportunities to open the scoring but were denied by the on-form Begovic, before Daniel Sturridge, who performed remarkably well considering he missed most of pre-season through injury, blasted Liverpool into the lead eight minutes before the interval. The England international collected the ball and unleashed an unstoppable strike past Begovic and into the bottom corner from range.

The Reds celebrate scoring the first goal of the season
It was a crucial goal as, had Liverpool entered half-time level with Stoke, anxiety would inevitably have set in at Anfield and it would have become increasingly difficult to unlock an away side clearly designed to scrap for a draw. Stoke did their best to draw level before the break and the Reds looked slightly suspect at the back, as Mignolet made a confidence-boosting save from Walters’ threatening strike soon after the goal before Lucas cleared off the line on the stroke of half time after another impromptu game of pinball had ensued in the penalty area following a corner kick.

The first half of the second period was spent largely pursuing a second goal to kill off Stoke, while the latter stages saw Liverpool gradually become more defensive, as the visitors came out of their shell slightly and sought a late equaliser that their performance didn't warrant.

Mark Hughes’ men had goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, a reported target for Brendan Rodgers in the summer transfer window before he ended up replacing Reina with Mignolet, to thank for keeping them in the match. After Coutinho curled wide moments into the second half, yet another superb save denied the hosts, as Henderson directed a left-footed effort on target from the Brazilian’s cross but saw Begovic punch the ball away.

When Henderson finally did beat Begovic just after the hour mark, he was frustratingly denied by the woodwork, as his curling shot bounced back off the inside of the post after good work from Aspas had created the opportunity for the former Sunderland midfielder. Not even Steven Gerrard’s sensational 30-yard free kick was good enough to beat the Potters’ inspired keeper, who clawed the ball behind fantastically.

At the other end, Mignolet had to be on his toes ten minutes from time to tip former Liverpool midfielder Charlie Adam’s effort from the hallway line over the bar. Then, with only three minutes of normal time left, Sterling foolishly conceded a soft free kick from which Agger inexplicably handled, handing the visitors the perfect opportunity to steal a point from the penalty spot.

Thankfully, though, Simon Mignolet had done his homework and knew that Walters had placed his previous five spot kicks in the same place; low to the goalkeeper’s right. The 29-year old Irishman followed his predictable pattern and Mignolet dived low to make a superb stop. In fact, his save to prevent Jones netting from the follow-up was perhaps even more impressive, as the Belgian made himself big to make another fantastic save and become the hero of a thrilling afternoon.
Mignolet salutes the ecstatic crowd

It was the perfect ending to what would otherwise have been characterised as a nervy competitive debut. Parallels can be made with Pepe Reina’s first few games for Liverpool, which saw the Spaniard struggle with crosses but excel at shot stopping, especially from spot kicks. His ability to make world-class, match-winning, points-saving stops after spending most of the match as a spectator is a particularly promising sign that Mignolet is capable of becoming a top notch goalkeeper.

Ultimately, Liverpool must be pleased with a victory over a bogey team on a day when the Reds have often struggled in the past. Of course, there is room for improvement in defence and we must kill these contests off much earlier in the future, but these are the types of games that we have failed to win in the past and the squandered points have cost us dear. This victory hopefully will be the first example of that changing this season.


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