Late Coutinho stunner downs Stoke
Philippe Coutinho struck a stunning late winner as Liverpool dramatically opened their Barclays Premier League campaign with barely-deserved 1-0 win at Stoke.
A drab encounter at the Britannia Stadium appeared to be drifting towards a goalless draw when Coutinho suddenly found the net with a ferocious 30-yard shot in the 86th minute.
It was the Merseysiders' only serious effort of the game and, although the contest had opened up more in the second half, the Potters had seemed the more likely to score.
But after Liverpool's tame surrender at the same ground on the final day last season, when they were thrashed 6-1, manager Brendan Rodgers may care little about the manner of victory at this stage.
Rodgers is trying to mould together a new side after an extensive summer of recruitment and the much-publicised loss of Raheem Sterling.
He started with six of the players that featured in that Britannia Stadium hammering 77 days previously but handed starts to four summer signings in Christian Benteke, James Milner, Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez.
Stoke, who handed debuts to former Liverpool full-back Glen Johnson, Ibrahim Affelay and Marco van Ginkel, were the more positive side as Liverpool looked disjointed and lacked rhythm.
Even so, an early effort from Mame Biram Diouf did not trouble a shaky-looking Simon Mignolet and a floated Charlie Adam free-kick into the box came to nothing.
Adam Lallana had an effort deflected wide for Liverpool but it was not until the 36th minute that Stoke created the first serious openings.
Van Ginkel forced Martin Skrtel to hook a deflected cross off the line and Affelay's follow-up volley was blocked by Clyne. The rebound fell to Johnson but he scooped over.
A niggly contest became even scrappier as Adam took exception to a Milner challenge and pushed the Liverpool man over and referee Anthony Taylor needed his whistle with increasing frequency.
The game improved slightly after the break with Van Ginkel making Mignolet earn his wages and the hard-working Jordon Ibe skipping into the area only to be denied by a well-timed Marc Muniesa tackle.
Another Adam free-kick forced Mignolet into action after running right through the area before Benteke had a shot blocked after a dangerous run by Coutinho. Jack Butland then made his first real save from a Skrtel header.
Stoke made a final push and Skrtel blocked well from Van Ginkel and Diouf headed over from a Johnson cross but Coutinho had the final word, just moments after he had volleyed over wildly.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
Great result,great start,Coutinho the little magician - former Liverpool defender and assistant manager Phil Thompson was more than a little pleased with the Reds' match-winner. https://twitter.com/Phil_Thompson4/status/630422586149703681
Jack Butland: 6 (out of 10)
Glen Johnson: 7
Geoff Cameron: 6
Marc Muniesa: 7
Erik Pieters: 6
Glenn Whelan: 6
Charlie Adam: 7
Jon Walters: 6
Marco van Ginkel: 7
Ibrahim Affelay: 6
Mame Biram Diouf: 6
Philipp Wolscheid: 6
Steve Sidwell: 5
Peter Odemwingie: 5
Simon Mignolet: 6
Nathaniel Clyne: 6
Martin Skrtel: 7
Dejan Lovren: 6
Joe Gomez: 7
Jordan Henderson: 6
James Milner: 6
Jordon Ibe: 7
Philippe Coutinho: 8
Adam Lallana: 5
Christian Benteke: 6
Emre Can: 6
Roberto Firmino: 5
Philippe Coutinho: For providing the game's only genuine moment of quality. The Brazilian had noticeably stepped up his attempts to force a winner in the moments preceding his great strike, but a wild volley into the back of the stand appeared to sum up the game's quality. The brilliance of Coutinho's goal was out of keeping with almost everything else that occurred on the field. Other than that, it was a brave showing by Australia cricket coach Darren Lehmann - in the crowd and not afraid to show his face in public on an unscheduled day off after the Ashes humbling.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
Amid a drab first half, there was a nice moment in the 12th minute as Stoke fans broke into applause for season-ticket holder Stuart Knowles, who has been in a coma since undergoing life-saving surgery seven weeks ago. The ovation had been organised by Stuart's son Chris, who now intends to play a recording of it to his father. He chose the 12th minute because Potters fans are renowned for their vocal support as the team's 12th man.
VIEW FROM THE BENCH
It was a dull encounter but both managers will find positives. Rodgers will be pleased with how his side nullified the threat of Stoke, even if the lack of chances created will be a cause for concern. He will expect that to improve as the new players settle in. Mark Hughes will be frustrated not to have taken at least a point from the game. Stoke were the better side for most of the contest.
MOAN OF THE MATCH
This was a game almost devoid of quality. Much more was expected from a side acclaimed for their positive play last season in Stoke, and another with lofty ambitions in Liverpool. In hindsight, this was not the best choice of game for live TV coverage.
With the game seemingly petering out into a goalless draw, Liverpool were preparing to make a third and final substitution and Rodgers admitted he was planning to replace Coutinho moments before his long-range winner.
"We were looking at it (substituting Coutinho) because he's only come back into the fold a lot later than the others," the Northern Irishman admitted on Sky Sports 1.
"But it's wonderful. We obviously changed position because he started in central midfield.
"You want to keep him on the pitch as long as you can but we felt that maybe towards the end of the game Glen (Johnson) was getting forward more and he (Coutinho) was getting forward with Glen and maybe we were losing a bit defensively in the side.
"You try to leave it (the substitution) as long as you can because he has that magic. But what a goal! To turn out Steve Sidwell who's a really strong player, to get away and hit the strike at that stage of the game, in the first game, was wonderful."
Defeat was harsh on Stoke and Hughes believes his side had done enough to secure at least a point from the game.
"I thought the game was petering out towards the last 10 minutes or so and both sides were reasonably happy with proceedings in terms of the result," he said.
"I think everyone thought it was going to peter out to a draw - unfortunately for us Coutinho produced a little bit of magic and has won the game and taken three points away from us."
Xherdan Shaqiri was spotted at the Britannia Stadium during the match and Hughes admitted he hopes to add the Inter Milan midfielder to his Potters squad but denied the deal was done.
"If we can conclude something then we'll be delighted, but nothing is certain in the transfer market when the window is open," the Welshman added.
"We've been close in the past and haven't been able to conclude deals, so we'll have to wait and see."