After beating Sunderland at the Stadium of Light in 2008, Liverpool went on to enjoy their closest title challenge for the best part of 20 years.
This season is not likely to be one to draw up in comparison to that of Rafa Benitez’s master class that year but so often, the opening day has proven to be a torturous event for LFC.
Instead of stoking the flames of belief it has served to remind us that the team is fallible and punctured the pre-season optimism.
If we remind ourselves of the 3-0 painful humbling to West Brom in the last campaign, it was the match that set the tone for first half of the season. Expectations were immediately trampled and there was an acknowledgement that it was going to be a gruelling year.
Yet it is not just defeats that can sour the start to a season. The appetite can be equally spoiled by the team picking up a solitary point. Draws at home to Sunderland or away to Sheffield United have been just as agonising and have dampened the glorious return of football for Reds fans making the gallows humour arise far too soon into the season.
Liverpool’s record in the opening day fixtures since the 2003-2004 season has been more than just underwhelming. In the preceding 10 seasons we had recorded only 2 wins, with the other matches ending in 5 draws and 3 defeats, not exactly the benchmark of success.
Victory against Stoke was important because there has been a growing excitement amongst supporters in the off season. The team seems to have been improved with the signings that have been made; the pre-season results and performances were good and there is the hope that a big singing may soon inject an extra level of quality into Liverpool’s attacking line.
Excitement amongst the fans is infectious and often permeates into the team building confidence and relaxing nerves. It creates a club mentality which if it is sustained can bring momentum. Had Stoke scored the equalising penalty it changes the whole atmosphere. The next game becomes tainted by trepidation and optimism is replaced with cautiousness.
The game itself was a highly entertaining match. The team created a number of chances, there was an offside goal; the woodwork was hit on three occasions and there was that dramatic penalty save from Mignolet. The save itself added to the game the win seemed ever sweeter. Instead of that ‘here we go again’ feeling we are allowed to keep dreaming for that little bit longer and the roar that billowed around Anfield afterwards was a brilliant and defiant one.
What was reminiscent of last season was the desperation in the final 10 minutes. It is never quite clear whether the players react to the fans or the fans react to the players but the mood around Anfield always becomes strained in that period of the match when the lead is so narrow.
Perhaps experience has seen our team allow too many victories escape their clutches in that period but the calmness on the pitch in the preceding 80 minutes evaporates. Rash balls are played instead of simple ones and possession is squandered in positions where previously the team would never have lost the ball. The nerves kick in; the shouts from the stands become more frantic, more fierce and more anxious. So it was no surprise to see Liverpool gift Stoke an opportunity to score from the penalty spot at that late stage.
That the team survived that late crisis is something that bodes well for the future. The more often we can hold on to slender leads, or indeed improve them, in those closing stages the more relaxed the team and the fans will be in those situations.
It also means that rather than starting a new inquisition so early in the season like we have so many times before we can relax and look forward to our next football feast. We’re two points better off than we were in the corresponding fixture last season; let’s hope the team continues in the same vein.