07:52 pm
23 October 2016

Stoke 0-1 Liverpool: Reds overcome exercise in exorcism as Coutinho avenges Britannia nightmare

Back to the bedlam factory, 77 days on, Liverpool conjured one of the most significant opening-match victories of the Premier League era.

Few managers have ever headed into a new season under the sort of pressureBrendan Rodgers was feeling as he returned to the scene of his grimmest nightmare.

Everything which happened amid the white noise and hostility of the Britannia yesterday was viewed in the context of Liverpool’s 6-1 obliteration in Steven Gerrard’s farewell match on the final day of the last campaign.

And for 86 minutes it seemed as though Liverpool, quite reasonably, would be content to simply prove their intestinal fortitude and dog out a goalless draw.

Then Philippe Coutinho – who had just wellied a shot at least twice as far back as Row Z – swivelled round Steve Sidwell, advanced a couple of paces and curled a 25-yarder beyond Jack Butland.

Philippe Coutinho celebrates with team mates after scoring

Rodgers admitted there was an element of luck, that he was about to send on Danny Ings in the place of his majestic Brazilian.

But the strike which sparked joyous mayhem among the Red Army behind the goal will now allow Rodgers to build yet another new team away from the shadow of the noose.

The Liverpool manager praised all four of his debutants – Christian Benteke, James Milner, Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez – although perhaps only Milner was an obvious success here.

Benteke, the £32.5million line-leader, showed glimpses of his ability to hold-up play and bully defenders, but was ultimately frustrated.

Andrew Powell/Liverpool FCChristian Benteke competes with Charlie Adam and Glen Whelan
New man: Benteke battles with Glenn Whelan and Charlie Adam

Milner, though, was the perfect central midfield presence for this fixture. He has been assured he can establish himself as a box-to-box man at Anfield and he will sweat his wotsits off for Rodgers all winter.

Stoke may no longer play with the unadulterated ferocity of the Tony Pulis era any more but this remains a venue immune to the Premier League’s half-and-half scarf prawn-sandwich mentality, a visit to fear.

Mark Hughes was left grumbling about a Dejan Lovren elbow on Mame Diouf which earned only a yellow card and an unrequited penalty claim for handball against Clyne.

He also spoke of his hope of signing the Xherdan Shaqiri of Inter Milan, another player capable of moving the Potters on to a different plane.

ActionBrendan Rodgers speaks with James Milner and Philippe Coutinho
Impressed: Rodgers speaks to Milner and Coutinho

Shaqiri was here to watch a match which will not have filled him with any great enthusiasm to join the most over-hyped sporting league on Earth.

While Liverpool’s need to exorcise their shame afforded it a certain tension, this was an absolute stinker – almost entirely devoid of goalmouth action.

Rodgers is adamant that Benteke is far more than just a target man and that the big Belgian can fit into his new manager’s purist philosophy.

But Liverpool were more direct than usual and yet Benteke’s influence was limited. At one point he out-muscled Marc Muniesa and attempted a one-two with Coutinho.

JMP/REXPhilippe Coutinho scores
Going for goal: Coutinho tries his luck from range

Yet the most striking snapshot of his afternoon was the moment when Benteke openly berated his skipper Jordan Henderson for failing to tee him up when well placed, not long before Coutinho’s late winner.

Liverpool face each of last season’s top five plus Everton in their next six away fixtures but they have precious breathing space now.

They have removed an almighty gorilla from their backs and redeemed themselves in the eyes of their supporters.

This was an exercise in exorcism and Coutinho was some ghost-buster.