Simon Mignolet took the plaudits on his Liverpool debut with a late penalty save to deny Jonathan Walters and ensure a winning start to the season for his new side with a 1-0 victory over Stoke City at Anfield. Despite being the better side throughout the opening-day contest, the hosts looked like throwing away two points when Daniel Agger blatantly handled a ball into the box with three minutes remaining. But the new arrival from Sunderland, after what had to that point been a shaky beginning to his Liverpool career, made himself an instant hero.
Ironically, for much of the match it had been Mignolet’s opposite number, Asmir Begovic, who had drawn the spotlight with a standout performance to prevent Liverpool’s win being far more comfortable. The hosts also struck the woodwork twice but were grateful for the decisive goal of the match, which came from a crisp strike from Daniel Sturridge late in the first half.
While Liverpool’s quick passing style appears set to continue to develop under Brendan Rodgers this season, Stoke showcased little alteration in their direct playing style despite the arrival of Mark Hughes. In fairness to Stoke, the rudimentary approach did cause Liverpool problems and led to an effort against the bar early on. But their negative tactics, which were contrary to the claims of Hughes beforehand, hardly warranted the visitors emerging with any points.
While the early kick-off time can often breed sluggishness, Liverpool began impressively, pushing Stoke back with their quick tempo and purposeful pressing. The movement of Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and summer recruit Iago Aspas causing the visitors particular problems.
Indeed, the only thing missing for Liverpool early on was the final touch. Kolo Toure was inches away from a dream debut as he powered a header against the crossbar from a corner. It was the creativity of Coutinho, though, that was at the heart of much of Liverpool’s attacking threat. The Brazilian, who made such a positive impact after arriving from Inter Milan midway through last season, set up Jose Enrique to exchange passes with Aspas before seeing a shot blocked by Begovic.
And it was a perfect through ball from Coutinho, consistently drifting in from his nominal left-sided role, which supplied Jordan Henderson with the best chance early on. Again a clinical finish was found wanting as the former Sunderland midfielder appeared hesitant at taking the shot with his weaker left foot and duly scuffed an effort straight at the goalkeeper.
The deserved goal would finally arrive in the 37th minute. Sturridge received possession 20 yards from goal and this time showed a ruthless streak as he took advantage of the failure of Robert Huth to close him down and drove a low shot through the defender’s legs and into the corner of the net.
Stoke, meanwhile, allowed Peter Crouch to cut an isolated figure in attack as they showed little ambition from open play. Despite the change in the dugout, it was the staples of Tony Pulis’s Stoke sides that were their biggest threat. Mignolet appeared to be suffering from some early nerves in a Liverpool shirt and struggled to deal with the mountainous aerial threat of Crouch on more than one occasion. It was only the width of a crossbar and a goal-line clearance from Daniel Agger that prevented efforts from center-backs Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross finding the net before the interval.
A goal down at the break, Hughes tried to be more positive by pushing Jonathan Walters in closer support of Crouch, but the pattern of the match remained the same. In fact it was only a string of fine saves by Begovic that prevented Liverpool from extending their lead. Henderson was the main victim of Begovic’s heroics as he was twice denied by the Bosnian at full stretch, the second a truly spectacular finger-tip stop to touch a shot into the inside of the post.
Coutinho and Sturridge also went close with efforts early in the second period. It wasn’t until 20 minutes from the end that Stoke showed genuine ambition as the match became more stretched late on. Hughes’s side created little, though, and it took a moment of madness from Agger to give Stoke the chance to pull level. Instead, Mignolet endeared himself to his new teammates and supporters in spectacular fashion.