Simon Mignolet's Penalty Save Can Be Catalyst for Important Run for Liverpool
With two minutes to go in a match they'd thoroughly dominated, Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for thinking here we go again at Anfield on Saturday.
They'd out-passed, out-created and even out-fought Stoke City, yet led by a single goal to nil and had just conceded a penalty to the Potters which would surely see the Reds leave with but a single point.
So much hard work, optimism, good play and reasons for cheerfulness—all ruined by plain old bad luck. Or bad judgement, whatever.
But a new potential hero emerged.
Flying low to his right, Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet kept out Jon Walters' mishit penalty before springing back to his feet to block the rebound shot from Kenwyne Jones. The ensuing roars from the Kop, both at that moment and 20 seconds later when the resulting corner was finally cleared, would have meant any passer-by outside Anfield must have thought the Reds had finally doubled their lead.
It's hugely early in the season to be making any kind of judgements about which moments might define a season—or which might have no bearing on anything two weeks from now—but, even so, an undeniable air of excitement, satisfaction and achievement emanated from fans after the final whistle blew with Liverpool's clean sheet still intact.
Pepe Reina left some big, often golden, gloves to fill when Brendan Rodgers decided to dispense with him this summer, albeit temporarily.
Mignolet has a huge job to do, but, as the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Stopping a last-minute penalty at Anfield to preserve a deserved and hard-fought victory on his debut is probably as close to perfect as an impression could be.
Ultimately, of course, he's protected two points for the Reds. It's given the team a positive start, but it now needs to be maintained.
The fixture list has kindly given Liverpool an opportunity, for once, to put a decent run of form together very early on in the season. If they make the most of it, by November time they should in the upper reaches of the table, with the likes of Aston Villa, Newcastle, Sunderland, Crystal Palace and West Brom to play before then.
Some games will be unexpectedly difficult, no doubt, but they are all games Liverpool should realistically be looking at winning.
Had they taken a point from the opening match, the mentality of the players themselves would not be the same as it clear is now, having recorded a first opening-day victory in five years.
The manager, Brendan Rodgers, has alluded to the atmosphere in the past couple of days, via the official club website:
I just got the feeling in the dressing room beforehand, when the players were getting together, some of our staff were saying that it just feels different this year. There's a camaraderie and a togetherness there. Long may it continue. We haven't won the World Cup, it's a game of football. But the lads are happy, they've done their job. They knew this was a big three points.
And he's right. Starting a new season is always a big three points, ones that the Reds have failed to pick up in recent times.
Losing out on a quick win always gives a feeling of having to play catch-up all season long, of missed opportunities right from the first kick and of that horrible, stomach-sinking here we go again.
If it happens in the next game that Liverpool drop points, or the one after, or another in a few weeks time, it will still be annoying, disappointing and frustrating. But it is bound to happen at one point or another.
Instead, right now, Liverpool are high on confidence and will head into the next few weeks believing that they can achieve far more than last season, in no small part because of the reaction and impetus provided by Mignolet's late double save.
It's early in the season, no doubt, but on such small moments of magic have both good and great seasons been formed.
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