If Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool wild ride was going to come to an end this summer – and there were plenty who thought it would do – then it would be possible to place Stoke City at both the start and end of what he would doubtless call his journey.
Whilst the 2012/13 season – Rodgers’ first at the club – was all about the Northern Irishman getting his feet under the table at Anfield, things really began to matter for him at the beginning of 2013/14, which was heralded with the visit of the Potters on the opening day.
Daniel Sturridge scored in the first half, then Liverpool missed a host of chances and were indebted to debutant Simon Mignolet’s late penalty save from Jonathan Walters to earn a 1-0 win. With Luis Suarez banned (the Ivanovic bite this time), the signs were optimistic.
After the indifference of the first campaign there’s no doubt that Rodgers needed a good 2013/14 to get fans onside, and what he got was a stellar one as Liverpool came so close to ridiculous glory after that opening Stoke victory.
It should have been enough money in the bank to sustain a below-par following season, but when 2014/15 so spectacularly got away from Liverpool – none more so than on that fateful afternoon at the Britannia Stadium in May when they suffered their heaviest ever Premier League defeat – many were left feeling bereft of confidence in Rodgers, not least Rodgers himself, whose infamous belief in his own ability will have come crashing down around him.
You get the feeling that he won’t survive anything sub-par from now on, and so it is with a certain irony that the first meaningful airing of his reshuffled, remodelled Liverpool for 2015/16 should come back in the Potteries.
With Suarez, Gerrard, Sterling, Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson and others gone, the team which starts this new campaign bears very little resemblance to the XI which beat Stoke two years ago, but it’s going to need to have made a complete transformation from the one which lost 6-1 at the Britannia 10-and-a-half weeks ago, too.
Liverpool supporters have got used to seeing their club start new seasons with a raft of new signings, and it is how quickly those signings settle in and gel with some older faces which is likely to decide whether their manager stands or falls.
A trip to a vastly improving Stoke at any time in the season is a tough one, but if Christian Benteke can get off the mark on Sunday, if Roberto Firmino can sparkle, if James Milner can energise and if Nathaniel Clyne can show why plenty rate him as one of the bargains of the summer, then optimism should rule in the away end, replacing the gloom of May.
Finishing in the top four will be hard, as the odds indicate. Manchester United have a renewed swagger indicating their belief in a divine right to it, whilst Arsenal are suddenly aiming higher. Chelsea and Manchester City could still launch acceptable bids for the moon on a stick should they wish.
But what should be easy for Liverpool is restoring the faith that their fans have in their team and manager, because it couldn’t have got any lower than it was when Peter Crouch nodded the sixth past Mignolet.
Rodgers has proven that he’s a coach who can take his team on runs, good and bad, throughout his Liverpool tenure, and having come so close to being shoved out of the exit door for good in the summer, he’ll be well aware that his next bad run could be his last.
His next good one, though?
Just as when Stoke visited Anfield on the opening day of 2013/14, a win on Sunday could prove to be so, so vital to this latest version of Liverpool, featuring a manager who enters the biggest season of his career.
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