What a way to announce your first competitive Liverpool debut. It felt like the Reds were back to the drawing board when chance-after-chance seemed to go array. With just Daniel Sturridge’s drilled left-footed strike separating the two sides, there was an air of tension around Anfield in the closing stages of an eventful game. And when Daniel Agger gave away a penalty, after a clear but perhaps somewhat harsh handball decision, Simon Mignolet stepped up to eradicate that tension with an outstanding double save to rescue the three points. And that wasn’t the first occasion he kept the Reds in the game either. In the first half hour, he produced a simply stunning save at full-stretch to deny Jonathan Walters a certain equaliser. There was never any doubt surrounding Mignolet’s shot stopping ability and those three pivotal stops prove that. But, it’s an emphasised but, there were a few worrying signs. With Pepe Reina, you didn’t just get a fine goalkeeper but a footballer as well. His distribution and confidence on the ball is unrivalled; he could play in midfield his ability on the ball is that good. Now Mignolet has a lot to live up to in that department. He dwelled on the ball far too much and didn’t look comfortable when given the time to pass out from the back. At Sunderland, their style of play would have dictated that he get it and hoof it, but under Brendan Rodgers, he must be more comfortable on the ball. No doubt that will come in time but it is something the goalkeeping Jon Aktenburg and the coaching staff will have to tweak. That is nit-picking though, because his overall performance amounted to what was a superb competitive debut for the goalkeeper who will walk away from this game the hero.
Most teams beginning their Premier League campaign will have the belief that this is ‘their’ year. At Anfield, that is no different. There is, however, a definite change in mood with this new look Liverpool side. Iago Aspas and Philippe Coutinho were particularly impressive. The pair of them hunted down the ball like Rottweilers after a bone and they never allowed Stoke the opportunity to be comfortable while in possession. Their performances were full of energy and that spirit was pulsating throughout the entire team. They encapsulated everything Rodgers is looking for from his team this year, and if they are to secure Champions League football for next season, it is that mentality in every game that will be required. They weren’t they only two standout performances though. Lucas was without a doubt Liverpool’s best outfield performer. With his fitness clearly regained, he broke down the play superbly and didn’t once waste possession of the ball. There is a genuine belief that something special could happen this year. The togetherness and commodore was clear for all to see when Mignolet made that penalty save, but this is just one game and that spirit will be pushed to the limits throughout the course of this season.
With Luis Suárez still to serve five games of his 10-match ban, the importance of Sturridge’s goal-scoring ability will be absolutely vital to Liverpool. The Reds have never had problems when it comes to creating openings but finishing them off is a different matter. Again, this afternoon was just another example of Liverpool’s wastefulness in front of goal and they could well have paid for their repeated misfiring in front of goal. However, what Rodgers has with Sturridge is a player who can score at any time from almost anywhere. Although still lacking match-fitness after a thin pre-season as a result of his ankle problems, the former Chelsea forward displayed his finishing prowess by scoring the game’s only goal. With half-time fast approaching and hatful of chances already wasted, Sturridge popped up to fire the Reds in front. If teams allow the England international time on the ball in front of the back four, he will cause them nightmares. His left-foot harnesses an incredible amount of power and accuracy with very little back lift and his drilled effort through the legs of Robert Huth was enough to secure the victory. If he can continue where he left off from last season, which on today’s showing it looks like he may just do that, then the Reds are sure to make a good start to the season.
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