Had you asked me last May after our last calamitous trip to the Potteries if I’d quite enjoy a boring scoreless draw on our next visit to the Britannia Stadium, there’s no question what my answer would be. That, of course, was where we were heading until a moment of magic from a man known to be a magician saw Liverpool snag all three points.
To be honest, I was so engrossed in writing opening paragraphs about opportunities wasted and what it would be mean for boss Brendan Rodgers that I almost missed Philippe Coutinho’s clever turn. The goal — a superb long-range curling effort that only saw the swirl bettered by the tantalizing dip — of course was the real talking point, but that little bit of technique as he beat the whole of Stoke City’s defence on the turn was the first moment I sat up with any manner of excitement.
You always want to start the season with a win, but with Chelsea drawing with Swansea City and Slaven Bilic getting West Ham United’s campaign off to the best possible start as Arsenal’s perennial blunder-fest got under way, this was the perfect opportunity to steal a march on two sides that will rival us for a spot in the top-four.
Obviously, it didn’t look like we were heading that until Coutinho bagged the only goal of the match four minutes from time. That it take us just over an hour to register a shot on net would be disconcerting in itself, but that it was Dejan Lovren — preferred, as expected, to Mamadou Sakho — who would be on the end of it only made things that much more frustrating. Christian Benteke, handed his Premier League debut by Brendan Rodgers after impressing against League One side Swindon Town in the Reds last pre-season match, cut a forlorn and far too familiar figure isolated up top, touching the ball only five times in the penalty area and forced throughout to retreat from the occupying the visitors center-halves in order to get a touch on the ball.
Stoke, on the other hand, hardly looked like the side that put six goals past their visitors to cap off last season, but they had the better opportunities to find at least one. Glen Johnson, released by Liverpool at the end of last season, skied the ball over the net from 12-yards as he looked to punish his former side early in the first half and Charlie Adam, who carries a grudge against his former employers the size of the gap in his teeth, came within inches of putting the hosts ahead with a sneaky free-kick midway through the second period, but Simon Mignolet did well to play the ball rather than the man as ex-Barcelona boy Ibrahim Afellay tried to get on the end of it.
Switching things up when Emre Can replaced Adam Lallana just past the hour, James Milner and the impressive Jordan Henderson, playing his first competitive fixture since being handed the Liverpool armband, were given greater license to join the attack, and though it hardly turned the tide, we looked a more organized side with the German holding down the midfield. Lovern’s half-chance was followed up by a pair of Stoke players getting in the way of Benteke’s low effort before Martin Skrtel’s header was saved in spectacular fashion by Potters ‘keeper Jack Butland. To be fair, it was all a bit pedestrian until it wasn’t; set to get the hook for Danny Ings if only a moment later, Coutinho showed why he’s just one of those players as Liverpool, a side prone to doing things the hard way, lived up to their reputation.
That no one will remember the 86 minutes that came prior to the Brazilian’s winner in only a few days time is probably a good thing, but we may need to get used to these kind of displays until the dust clears. With a total of five new players — including Roberto Firmino, who was given a 15-minute run out — on the pitch when the final was whistle was blown, it only makes sense that things were disjointed at times as relationships are built and tactics are shaped. That we’ll meet teams that are far better than Stoke in the very near future is a matter for another day; three points, as always, is three points.
After our last visit to the Potteries, I wouldn’t ask for anything more.