Liverpool need to cast turmoil aside and grab opening win

Posted by David Usher

When the Premier League fixture list is released in mid-June, the first thing most supporters hope for is to be at home on opening day. If the opposition is a side you would expect to beat, all the better. While Liverpool could have been handed an easier opponent than Stoke City, the game certainly represents a great opportunity for the Reds to get off to the kind of start they have not managed to make in several years.

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You have to go back to a 1-0 win at Sunderland in 2008 to find Liverpool's last opening day victory, a game most notable for Rafa Benitez's baffling decision to start with the hapless Damien Plessis over Xabi Alonso. The boss eventually came to his senses and introduced "the maestro" at halftime, but it was another Spaniard, Fernando Torres, who settled the game with a late strike.

Since then the Reds haven't fared too well on opening day. The following year saw Benitez's men slip to a 2-1 defeat to Spurs at White Hart Lane, where not even the late introduction of the "not so Divine Ponytail" Andriy Voronin could rescue a point that day. A year later Roy Hodgson took charge of his first Liverpool game as Arsenal made the trip up North to Anfield. Joe Cole was sent off on the stroke of halftime but a beauty from David N'gog looked to have secured a plucky win until a late howler from Pepe Reina gave the Gunners a point they didn't deserve. Hodgson, Cole, N'gog ... *shudders*

An eventful 12 months passed and Kenny Dalglish was back in the dugout in 2011 as Sunderland travelled down to Merseyside. Liverpool should have been out of sight by halftime, but a string of missed chances -- including a penalty that Luis Suarez launched into orbit over the Anfield Road end -- proved costly as the Black Cats equalised and held on for a point.

The 2012 opener saw a fourth manager in as many years sit on the Liverpool bench as Brendan Rodgers endured a baptism of fire at the Hawthorns. Daniel Agger saw red and the Baggies were awarded two penalties in a disappointing 3-0 loss for the Reds. Not the result the makers of TV documentary "Being: Liverpool" were looking for, that's for sure.

And now here we are on the eve of the 2013-14 season, with Rodgers now settled into the Anfield hotseat and looking to lay down an early marker in the race for a top four spot. With the game having been moved to the early kickoff spot for TV coverage, it's a chance for Liverpool to top the table. What? After the disappointments of the past few years I'll clutch any straw I can find, no matter how small.

Tony Pulis may have gone but Stoke will still present a difficult challenge as they are exactly the kind of side that Liverpool often have problems with. Liverpool's record against the Potters isn't great, although it is slightly better at Anfield than it is at the Britannia. In 10 league meetings since Stoke returned to the top flight, Liverpool have only won twice, with Stoke winning three and the other five being draws.

All of those games had Pulis patrolling the touchline in his tracksuit and baseball cap and it could be argued that this is as good a time as any to face them, as new boss Mark Hughes is trying to implement a somewhat less archaic style of football and that will not happen overnight. There is certainly merit to that argument, but irrespective of the kind of football Hughes wants them to play, there are some constants that will surely still be lingering from the Pulis era, such as defensive organisation, ultra competitiveness (that's the polite way to describe it anyway) and a threat from set pieces.

Even if Hughes suddenly -- and miraculously -- managed to get them playing like Barcelona, the biggest threat they'd pose would still be set pieces as there are just so many behemoths in their side. Given that defending set pieces is Liverpool's Achilles' heel and that no height has been added to what was an already small side, this should definitely be a concern for Rodgers and his staff.

Liverpool will hope to have so much of the ball that it will be difficult for Stoke to get into a position to force many set pieces. That never used to be a concern for the Potters when they had Rory Delap hurling throw-ins from inside his own half into the opposing six-yard box, but with Delap now having taken his one talent elsewhere, the approach has had to be refined somewhat. Nevertheless, any time Stoke force a corner or free kick in a wide area, Kopite hearts will be in mouths.

Liverpool have often had problems with teams that park the bus, and even last season when the goals were flowing there were still numerous frustrating afternoons when the Reds were unable to break down resolute opposing rearguards, including Stoke who came away from Anfield with a relatively comfortable 0-0 draw.

Whenever Liverpool scored early last season they tended to kick on from that and often won games handsomely, but if the opposition could get to halftime at 0-0 or better, Rodgers' men often ran out of ideas and frustration would set in, both on the pitch and in the stands.

Last weekend against Celtic was a case in point, a game that the Reds were in almost total control of but failed to turn their dominance into goals, and somehow lost a game they should have won handsomely. Better to get that out of the system in preseason than when the real thing starts.

Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesSteven Gerrard will be looking to lead Liverpool to their first season opening win since 2008.

That Celtic game was exactly what Liverpool needed in terms of preparing for Stoke, as Celtic's dogged defensive display was something that the Reds hadn't thus far encountered in a preseason packed with impressive displays and victories against mediocre opposition.

If there was a slight danger that the players were getting a little complacent because of the number of convincing wins, the Celtic result will have nipped that right in the bud.

Even without the suspended Luis Suarez and with some fitness doubts still surrounding Daniel Sturridge, the Reds should have enough to see off Stoke, but it may depend on them getting that all-important early goal.

Rodgers has a couple of decisions to make in terms of team selection but most of the side picks itself. Barring any unforeseen injuries, the goalkeeper and back four will be the same as we've seen for most of preseason, while Lucas and Steven Gerrard will patrol the middle of the park.

Sturridge came through a behind-closed-doors practice match through the week (scoring twice and creating another) and should hopefully be fit enough to start the game, meaning the only question marks concern the other three attacking positions. Philippe Coutinho will occupy one of those spaces, either out wide or tucked in behind Sturridge, but the other two spots have been up for grabs all summer. Who fills those spaces depends on whether Rodgers wants to go with three midfield players or opt for 4-2-3-1.

If he goes for a midfield three then he must decide between Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson, while Stewart Downing's departure has opened things up on the right flank for the likes of Raheem Sterling, Iago Aspas and Jordan Ibe, at least until a top-class replacement hopefully arrives.

The turmoil caused by the irksome Suarez, coupled with concern at the club's inability to so far bring in the top class additions the manager has targeted, make it vital for the morale of club and fans that the team put on a performance and get off to a winning start against Stoke. An opening day win is certainly overdue, so here's hoping.


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