Stoke Post-Mortem & Pre-Villa Lookahead

Having finally won an opening home fixture for the first time since 2001, Liverpool fans will only hope for a bright season ahead. However, is this a false dawn? And what kind of performance can the Reds produce against opening weekend surprise package Aston Villa this weekend?

A typical home performance, one too many Liverpool fans have witnessed during the past two years. Control for much of the game, dominating proceedings, carving out twenty odd chances during the whole game, it seemed that Brendan Rodgers’ team would be frustrated once again. This time though, Daniel Sturridge broke the deadlock, continuing his fine form since joining Liverpool this January.

Kolo Toure’s towering header from a Steven Gerrard corner rattled the crossbar at the Anfield Road end, while in the second-half neat play by debutant Iago Aspas saw Jordan Henderson’s curling shot tipped onto the goalposts by arguably the man-of-the-match, Stoke’s goalkeeper Asmir Begovic. Sounds familiar?

Last season, Sturridge wouldn’t have scored, and Liverpool might have even left Anfield without any points due to a smash-and-grab or hit-and-run by the visiting team. It might have turned out this way had Stoke’s first effort of the season went in, as Robert Huth’s volley hit the posts early on, after fellow debutant, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, flapped at a cross upon being challenged by former Red’s striker Peter Crouch.

In truth, Mignolet’s afternoon could have been very different too. He had difficulty dealing with Stoke’s aerial speciality in the first-half. However, he did recover from that setback with a fine save to his left from Jon Walter close to half-time.

Some Positives

Don’t be mistaken, there were positives out of this Liverpool performance. First off, they got one over a perennial bogey team. The players seemed more adept at playing sweet, passing football. The passing triangles Rodgers constantly highlights seems to be more prominent and effective now, especially when they’re getting out of defence. It may have looked a little raw at times, playing out from the back, but it’s still the first competitive game so some credit is still due for the way they got about their business.

Toure’s debut was an encouraging one too, in Rodgers’ bid to replace the irreplaceable legend in Jamie Carragher. Toure may not be the tallest of defenders, but his leap was immense and he dealt with Crouch well, as well as being a threat in the opposing box – one that Liverpool has really lacked ever since fellow defensive legend Sami Hyypia’s goalscoring record left Anfield in 2009.

Lucas Leiva’s control of the midfield looks to see him back to his best, hopefully free of any injuries this season, as he will need to be ever-present if Liverpool were to have any hope of a top 4 challenge. It was good to see Sturridge continue his goalscoring form too, especially in the absence of Luis Suarez, which can only bode well for the club.

The final debutant that day, Iago Aspas, gave a solid performance, showing good movement and skill on the ball, with nice little turns and flicks here and there, showing flashes of brilliance. He combined well with Sturridge and Coutinho, considering how early days it is for him. He will need to add goals, though.

And the lookahead to the Villa game this Saturday. Last season, Liverpool got outmuscled and outplayed by Paul Lambert’s young, mobile side at Anfield, as Christian Benteke put the Reds’ meek defence to the sword, scoring two and assisting one. Though Rodgers’ team grabbed the win away at Villa Park (venue for the upcoming game), it was by a closer margin, and Villa still took the lead, with Benteke adding to his tally midway through the first-half.

Complacency Their Greatest Enemy

Liverpool cannot be carried away just because they got one over their bogey team. With retrospect, last season was one of many false dawns. A win was always followed by a disappointing goalless draw or inept defeat. This season, Rodgers needs to find more consistency and get his side to win a few games on the trot. Why not start this weekend, in a tough away game?

Reds fans will have much hope if three more points can be collected before the following game against fierce rivals Manchester United. Even if they cannot get a win over David Moyes’ new side, a return of 6 from 9 points is not a bad return for August, unlike last year’s 2 from the first 15 points.

Lambert’s side will not be afraid, with their opening day away victory of Arsenal. Liverpool should be slightly fresher, though, as Villa played Chelsea in midweek. Villa’s three-pronged attack looks more in-tuned this season, with Gabbi Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann supporting Benteke. Brad Guzan looks solid in goal as well, while their defence seems to have improved from last season.

Vital Questions

Can Toure deal with their pace? He can certainly deal with Benteke’s physicality, but in truth the Belgian is one notch above Crouch.

Will Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique play as high forward? I doubt so, further since this is an away game, Rodgers will require his full-backs to be more disciplined defensively.

vs Villa (A)

A similar, if not same, team should start. Jordan Henderson would most probably get the nod ahead of Joe Allen for his energy and work rate, and maybe repeat his magnificent goal from earlier this year?

Though Philippe Coutinho is better as a no.10 behind Sturridge, Henderson’s energy will be needed centrally, so Coutinho’s attacking verve could be sacrificed towards the flanks – although rotation of the front 4 will constantly keep opponents guessing.

Raheem Sterling should come in for Aspas, with the Spaniard’s impact coming off the bench, as Sterling’s pace will allow Liverpool to break from deep, bearing in mind they will be sitting slightly deeper to accommodate Villa’s immense pace. They won’t want to get caught flatfooted in defence or lack the pace to deal with Agbonlahor especially.

Rodgers will need his side to improve their set-piece defending, as more free-kicks will be conceded as a result of Reds defenders being run at by Villa’s attackers, while Villa’s search for the byline will see more corners be conceded. Learning from last season, Liverpool’s centre-midfielders will need to close down their Villa counterparts’ attempts to play balls down the channels for Agbonlahor and Weimann, or via the high route for Benteke’s knockdowns.

Fabio Borini may finally get some vital minutes, and confidence. New loanee Aly Cissokho should make his debut if defensive cover is needed due to injury or to hold out at the end.

Liverpool can certainly build on their opening day victory over Stoke by getting one past Villa, one of the few teams who caused Rodgers’ side so much physicality problems last year. It’ll show how far his young side has come maturely as well, if they can stave off a confident and devastating Villa frontline.

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