After a drab first half littered with defensive mistakes, it looked for all the world like this game would just be more of the same from Liverpool. The famous Kop were being out-sung by the spirited away fans, and the chant of “how do you watch this every week?” was a question that many reds fans were surely putting to themselves. However, a second half where the team looked much more like the title-challenging outfit of last season was enough to ensure a 1-0 victory. The winner came late on in the match courtesy of a brave header from Glen Johnson of all people.
Prior to the game, Brendan Rodgers made comments about how this game would be treated by Liverpool as the start of their season. As such, the dreary opening half an hour was somewhat anticlimactic; the team offered nothing in attack, and whilst the defence was generally solid both Glen Johnson and Kolo Toure looked uncomfortable with the ball at their feet, with the former actually getting robbed of possession in a dangerous area. The only player who did themselves proud in these opening exchanges was Lucas, who put in some strong challenges to break up the play. Things improved a little towards the end of the half – Coutinho, who up to this point had been playing poorly, began to get into the game. This had a big impact; his sublime touch and excellent acceleration was nearly enough to take him through the entire Stoke defence just before the break. As it was, the half ended scoreless: a fair reflection on a largely uninspiring first 45 minutes.
The “game of two halves” cliché is applicable to this match – the encounter changed dramatically during the second period. This was, in part, down to Raheem Sterling’s increased involvement in the game; up to this point we hadn’t really seen much from him, but his bursting runs throughout the second half caused Stoke problems. This increased attacking intensity came at a price, as it opened the game up to the extent where the visitors were able to fashion a few decent chances of their own. Mignolet made a couple of strong saves, and Sterling was required to make an off-the-line clearance from a Stoke corner. However, it was Liverpool who eventually profited from the game becoming more open – having come extremely close through Allen and Sterling, Johnson eventually got the goal in the 86th minute. Henderson’s initial ball in was met by Lambert, who’s headed effort bounced off the bar. Johnson was quickest to react, and positively threw himself at the ball in order to head it home. He took a boot to the head in doing so, but he got full reward for his bravery. Despite a succession of Stoke corners, Liverpool did manage to hold out for a much-needed victory.
It was Johnson who was voted man of the match by fans on Twitter due to his winning goal, but for me the outstanding performer was Lucas Leiva. I was hoping that he’d play prior to the game – he has been fielded in a couple of cup matches this season and looked good (or at the very least better at providing cover than Gerrard), and he rewarded Rodgers’ decision to play him today. He was consistently solid at the back, as well as making a couple of good forward runs. He nearly got a goal, but having run into an excellent position in the box he couldn’t steer his shot past Begovic. Other good performers were Sterling – who Liverpool fans are praying is now back to his best – and Lambert, who exhibited some nice technique at times (most notably with a glorious turn in the second half) and generally held the ball up well. Kolo Toure also had a pretty strong game, staking his claim to be first-choice centre-back in the place of disappointing new signing Dejan Lovren.
If Liverpool can build some momentum on the back of this result, we could indeed be looking at the fresh start that Rodgers referenced before the game. Although it’s far too late to mount any sort of title challenge again – even at this early stage Chelsea look to have it all but wrapped up – this performance provided encouragement that the top 4 is still very much within our grasp. The more pressing matter of qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League is also looking more promising than it was; a performance against Basel like the one we put in during the second half against Stoke should be enough to get us the win and consequently the qualification.