I can’t quite think of how to start this piece, so I’m just going to bash on with it regardless. The football is back, and for those out there who’ll say it never went away, I’ve got news for you: it most certainly did, and now it’s back my life feels decidedly more complete.
Liverpool Football Club was, of course, involved in the small matter of the first Premier League game of the season.
An early kick-off, on a Saturday no less – a starting berth which always presents me with a sense of impending doom – and up against a side which has become somewhat of a bogey team as far as LFC have been concerned in recent years. What could possibly go wrong?
The fact that Liverpool were the clear favourites to win the match – being played at Anfield – and that Stoke have failed to score at Anfield in the Premier League, provided some comfort, but not much, especially considering last year’s frustrations against the Potters.
From early on, the signs were there that the Reds would be the dominant force in the match. As expected, the home side’s monopoly of possession was almost absolute in the opening minutes, and the quality of the movement up front was causing the visitors problems. However, Red hearts were in mouths when Mignolet failed to deal with a deep cross effectively and Robert Huth smashed a volley off the crossbar, the net gaping.
Had Huth been able to keep his effort down, things might have panned out very differently. Football is however, a game of fine margins, and that Mignolet and Liverpool survived that early scare was a sign towards what would eventually happen much later on.
Liverpool proceeded to dictate the play, and when Daniel Sturridge rifled the ball home seven minutes before the break, it was fair to say that the goal had been coming. The only mild surprise was that it had taken as long as it had to arrive. Mignolet was forced into action shortly afterwards, producing a flying save to deny Walters, but Stoke carried little threat going forwards.
The Reds control extended well into the second-half. Coutinho went close twice, and Jordan Henderson was fabulously thwarted by Begovic on no fewer than three occasions, the third crashing back off the inside of the post, following the faintest of fingertips from the Bosnian.
1-0 it remained, with three minutes to go, when Charlie Adam tossed a hopeful free-kick into the box and Daniel Agger rose to meet it with his…hand! PENALTY! The crowd at Anfield, myself, and the millions watching around the world were instantly filled with that all too familiar feeling: “NOT AGAIN! I DON’T BELIEVE IT! HOW HAVE WE THROWN IT AWAY AGAIN! NOTHING’S CHANGED!” But it had.
Walters scuffed his shot slightly and Mignolet – having done his homework I presume – went the right was to block the shot, and recovered quickly enough to deny Jones on the rebound. Cue an eruption from the Anfield faithful. Three roars, one for each save, and the loudest for when the ball was safely cleared from the resultant corner.
That the roars for the saves were louder than the noise for Daniel Sturridge’s goal may seem strange, but it can be explained very easily. With five minutes to go and the Reds a goal up, the vast majority of fans, myself included, were expecting a spanner in the works. That it came in the form of a penalty for a rather farcical handball incident was of no great surprise and of no great importance, it was a spanner nonetheless. The collective groan and knowing tuts were there to be heard, as fans anticipated the likelihood of throwing away points, yet again, from a position of utter control.
For fans who, for three full seasons at the very least, had become used to watching their team surrendering points in winnable matches, and seeing them fail to capitalise adequately when on top, witnessing a Stoke equaliser in such a manner would have been totally demoralising, and all too familiar. Mignolet’s save was catharsis, salvation, redemption – for the fans, for the players, but above all, for the club as a whole.
Perhaps things are changing. Perhaps the team spirit and positive mentality, along with the changes in personnel and philosophy are finally beginning to pay off, perhaps LFC are on the march again. History did not repeat itself, the Reds held on to record a thoroughly deserved victory, and one that will mean so much more to the club than the three points it earned on Saturday afternoon.
Kolo Toure, Rodgers’s acquisition from Manchester City, was imperious on his competitive Anfield bow. A true professional, a man of fantastic integrity and experience and, it would seem, a player who has, much more quickly than most, grasped what it means to wear the Red of Liverpool. Toure knew exactly how vital this win was for LFC, so I think it’s fitting that I leave you with his words.
“It was an unbelievable double save. It’s fantastic for all the supporters and the players for us to start like this. It will give everyone a big lift. This win will be important for the future of this football club.”