A SUNNY Stoke Saturday. An edgy, narrow victory. A league position unaltered by the gaining of the points on offer.
The occasion shouldn’t register on any scale in Liverpool FC history. Yet, the final whistle heralded a cue for wild celebration. The clenched pumping fists, the primal roars, the hugging, the beaming smiles. Look at those gleeful Liverpool faces in post-match interviews. Listen to the noise emanating from that overjoyed sun-kissed away terrace. This was no ordinary day. The collective were absorbing a league win far greater than the quantum of its obvious parts.
Maybe it was the degree of deflation in the wake of last Wednesday’s draw with Bournemouth that provided the context for Saturday’s comeback. Perhaps it was more the sheer impotence of the Liverpool display in the first half at the Britannia.
To hit heights, to suggest momentum, trajectory, and then to trip and stumble in the next motions seems a familiar narrative pattern for over two decades worth of the Liverpool story. Sadio Mane’s week added to the fatalism in microcosm. From goal scoring derby hero to fallen soldier — his season ended by a knee injury — in the course of days. Don’t dare to dream, Reds. The god of football ultimately is never with you, will never have your back.
By 3pm on Saturday we knew that a week that had gone from sublime to dispiriting, was destined for the ridiculous with the breaking news that key men Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino were not fit enough to start against Stoke. So stretched were the manager’s resources that he was all but forced into starting a game with a three-man defence and teenagers Ben Woodburn and Trent Alexander-Arnold. To say it was evident that the home dressing room had scented blood, after devouring the revelation of that weakened Liverpool team, would be only be hinting at their sensing of opportunity.
Despite shouts for a Liverpool penalty prior to Stoke’s 43rd minute opener, the trudge back to the dressing room by a very bowed Liverpool side looked every step a funeral march. There was no escaping that a poor-to-middling Stoke team had routinely exposed the paucity of Jürgen Klopp’s wider set of squad options.
Compounding the gloom was the return to toothlessness of lone striker Divock Origi and the knowledge that the — seemingly viable — bench options the manager had available to him, had barely completed a training session in the previous week. This was a Liverpool down to its bare bones and on its bare arse.
The series of events that combined to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win felt like a programme of therapies for this Liverpool and its folk. Everywhere we looked there were redemption stories:
The manager, slow to use his bench to ensure victory against Bournemouth in the week, and chided for starting the kids against Stoke, had a big 15 minutes in that Britannia Stadium dressing room. The product his step-up yielded was a dream response from his team. A new system, perfectly weighted substitutions, and a sense of purpose from that second half 11 that suggested that their leader had taken no prisoners during his half-time sermon.
Coutinho — still a work in progress, still prone to the odd injury and being deflected from his golden path — staggered from his sick cot, throwing sheets asunder, mopping his fevered brow. He’d put on his boots, pulled his number 10 shirt over his head, picked up his shield and sword and strode out before his expectant people and simply delivered. He pulled every string going, scored the key, game-turning goal, and walked off the pitch the man of the day. He was back. Again.
Firmino must have cut a sad figure in telling his manager on the Friday that he simply didn’t have the legs for Saturday’s game. How painful that confession must have been for a proud warrior. He’d simply run himself into the ground this season. For Liverpool. But the call beyond duty called him back into the fray for that second half at Stoke. He followed his friend Coutinho’s lead and lead the charge back from defeat, crowning an incredible 45 minutes with a special goal. It was his best yet in a Liverpool shirt and it felt like it might come to represent the moment that this player truly ‘arrived’ as a Liverpool footballer.
Mignolet’s two saves were the kind of saves that we come to view as equivalent to goals. Saves that are simply not there to be made. Beyond the realm of the mere good saves or great saves. Ten of Simon’s goalkeeping peers would simply not have made those stops in those moments. Mignolet will have walked off a pitch as a Liverpool goalkeeper with a free mind for the first time in a very long time. He walked into the away dressing room to a standing ovation from his brothers. Maybe, just maybe, his Liverpool career starts here.
For the team, the club, for all of us, the win at Stoke showed that the Klopp project has enormous hidden reserves. That it will not be broken by the loss to injuries to key men — Mane, Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson. That it will not be knocked from its course by routine setbacks — the Bournemouth late equaliser at Anfield, the John Walters goal for Stoke. That it will not allow a season’s work to be laid to waste. The free-scoring winning of the autumn, the exciting wins and results against the big teams in January to March. These will not be in vain.
The Reds are heading back to Europe’s top table, with Manchester United and Arsenal in their wake. Bring on your Stokes and West Broms by the score.
The Brom-busting 11: Mignolet; Matip, Lovren, Klavan; Clyne, Can, Wijnaldum, Milner; Coutinho, Firmino, Sturridge.
Kick-Off: 1.30pm live on Sky Sports 1
Last Match: Liverpool 2 West Brom 1
Referee: Jon Moss
Odds: West Brom 7-2, Draw 14-5, Liverpool 11-12