Liverpool got the 2013-14 Premier League season up and running with a 1-0 home victory over Stoke City. Their main men at both ends of the field are to thank for the three points.
The first game of the new campaign was also the first match in any league to officially utilise Hawkeye, the new goal-line technology.
It was also a first game for Mark Hughes as manager of Stoke, with Brendan Rodgers starting his second campaign as Liverpool boss.
Stoke suffered misfortune before kickoff, as named starting midfielder Wilson Palacios was ruled out through illness, having to be replaced by Marc Wilson.
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It was the home side who directed play and chances early on, dominating possession and seeing some good interplay between the front three of Iago Aspas, Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. All three had chances to shoot in the opening stages.
They found Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic in fine form, though, as he pulled off a string of stunning saves which would continue as a theme of the game throughout the 90 minutes.
Sturridge had the ball in the net early on, but the effort was ruled out for offside. Meanwhile, rival centre-backs Robert Huth and Kolo Toure both hit the crossbar from worked set pieces.
It was left to Reds striker Sturridge to finally break the deadlock with a rifled effort past Begovic from range, finding the bottom corner to score the first goal of the season.
Liverpool continued to be dominant for the remainder of the half, but couldn’t add to their tally thanks to some wayward finishing from Jordan Henderson and Jose Enrique as well as the continued excellence of Begovic.
The second half started off in a similar vein, with Liverpool dictating the flow of the game. Coutinho was oft-involved and his linkup with Sturridge and debutant Iago Aspas was particularly impressive.
At the other end, Simon Mignolet was called upon to make a terrific stretching save on a Jon Walters volley from the edge of the area. Begovic was not to be outdone and continued to prevent the Reds from adding to their tally.
The Reds’ total of 25 shots during the game showed their impressive creativity and dominance, but Begovic denied Steven Gerrard from a free-kick, tipped a Henderson curler off the post and made more saves on close-range efforts after set pieces.
Hughes made a succession of subs, including bringing on former Liverpool midfielders Jermaine Pennant and Charlie Adam, but the home side defended stoutly and Mignolet was too infrequently called upon in the latter stages—until Daniel Agger had a bit of a meltdown.
The Dane leapt to defend a free kick put into the box and ended up handling the ball, conceding a penalty with just two minutes left on the clock.
Walters stepped up to take it, but the Belgian newcomer in the Liverpool goal made himself an instant hero by saving the penalty in the last minute and then bouncing back up to block the rebound shot from Kenwyne Jones as well.
It was the last big chance for Stoke and the huge roar from the Anfield crowd showed just what it meant to them, as Liverpool held on to win their first opening-day fixture in five years.
Key Player Grades
Asmir Begovic: A+
Simply excellent. The Stoke keeper stopped almost everything the Reds threw at him, with only the arrowed strike from Sturridge proving beyond his grasp.
His save on Henderson in the second half in particular was a world-class stop. If not for him, Stoke would have been out of the running well before Walters saw his penalty saved by Begovic’s opposite number.
With him in goal, Stoke will always have a chance of clean sheets this season, which might be just as well given the paucity of their attacking talent.
Daniel Sturridge: A
On his return from injury, Sturridge managed the full 90 minutes, showed plenty of great touches to link up with his fellow attackers and of course scored the all-important goal to win the three points.
Another day, faced with a lesser goalkeeper than Begovic, and he would have had at least a brace of goals to start the season with. Nevertheless, it’s certainly a welcome sight for the Reds to see their No. 1 striker hit the back of the net right at the beginning of the season.
More promising exchanges of passes and movement with Iago Aspas were also interesting to see, with preseason time for the two in the same team at a premium.
Philippe Coutinho: B
The Brazilian started from the left of the Reds attack and frequently found space to turn and make his passes and runs infield.
He was an impressive source of chances and through balls, especially for the runs of Sturridge, and was unlucky not to score with one or two of his chances.
He tailed off a little in the second half, especially as Stoke fought back to try and salvage a point, but Coutinho showed more than enough to suggest he’ll be every bit the success this season as he looked to be last term.
Liverpool face Aston Villa in their first away game of the season on August 24, while Stoke City will play at home to recently promoted Crystal Palace as they try to pick up their first points of the season.
There were plenty of reasons for Reds boss Rodgers to be optimistic. On the other bench, Hughes knows he probably still needs to try and bring in another signing or two—particularly in the final third.