Anfield had earned an 89th-minute reprieve but the reaction was akin to a curse lifting. A Liverpool victory having dominated, squandered, worried and survived a late opposition rally is a rarity in itself, but it was the final act that sparked delirium and strengthened Brendan Rodgers's hope of a breakthrough season.
Simon Mignolet's penalty stop from Stoke City's Jonathan Walters produced "the debut that you dream of" for the £9m summer signing from Sunderland. In doing so he became the only Liverpool goalkeeper to save a spot-kick on his debut and the first to foil one in a league game at Anfield for 14 years. The last time was 28 August 1999, to be exact, when Sander Westerveld thwarted Arsenal's Davor Suker, with the 16 awarded since (not many, admittedly) all converted. A remarkable statistic that Mignolet enhanced with the follow-up, denying Kenwyne Jones with the rebound and his manager familiar torment.
"I thought we were stood back in last season," said Rodgers on the moment Daniel Agger was penalised for a ballerina act gone wrong. Instead, the manager strolled into the post-match press conference laughing, clapping his hands and shouting "Liverpool – top of the league!" He was right to milk the moment. A torturous summer with Luis Suárez had not sabotaged the opening day. "All I will say on Luis is that I'm very satisfied with how things have been resolved," said Rodgers, and Liverpool's mood will be enhanced should they seal the £30m transfer of Willian from Anzhi Makhachkala. Several clubs are interested in the Brazil midfielder but Liverpool are closest to a deal, if erring on the side of caution after a summer of near-misses for leading targets.
"These are the wins that galvanise you," the Liverpool manager surmised. "They are better than the 4-0s and the 5-0s at times. It was a game we totally dominated but couldn't finish it off and then the game is in the balance and a bit edgy. We saw games last season that we dominated and didn't get the win. But I was pleased with how we closed the game out after the penalty – we were boring, we got into the corner, used our bodies and got two or three players in there. That shows we have started to become good tactically again. Instead of it becoming a basketball game with us going for a second goal and them coming back at us, we just controlled the game, killed it, got the three points, got in the shower and got off home. It was a big three points." And a sickening start to life at Stoke for Mark Hughes.
Stoke's new manager did not comment on the game as he left immediately on a scouting mission. He could not have questioned the merits of Liverpool's triumph yet had causes for regret. The visitors lost Wilson Palacios in the warm-up, saw Robert Huth slam the first golden chance of the season against the bar and, having survived a first-half storm thanks to the superb Asmir Begovic, were increasingly assured in the second half. They remain a side reliant on the set piece for goals, however.
Mignolet twice denied Walters an equaliser, with the Evertonian's predictable penalty and meagre record – 10 scored from 15 now for Stoke – another lament for Hughes. It was mystifying that Walters took the responsibility with Charlie Adam on the pitch.
"How long is a piece of string?" replied Mark Bowen, Hughes's assistant, on how long it will take to develop Stoke's style of play. "We are working on it every day and have done so right through pre-season. It would have been very easy here, when under pressure as a defender, to revert to launching it forward. But overall we kept playing the way we want and I know our fans want to see it that way."
Stoke were undone and Liverpool benefited from a touch of clinical excellence by Daniel Sturridge. With the banned Suárez looking on, and surely querying the merits of a pushing for a move to Arsenal by the afternoon's end, Sturridge revelled in the responsibility of leading Liverpool's attack. An unerring drive into the bottom corner from 20 yards, with immense power from little back-lift of the left foot, could become a Sturridge trademark if he plays often enough.
Praising Sturridge's rapid return from ankle ligament damage, Rodgers revealed: "Daniel had to make sacrifices this summer. The biggest credit you can give him is that in that time he was off he never put on any weight whatsoever. He adjusted his diet to make sure he didn't put on anything while he physically couldn't do anything. I have to give credit to the medical team as well because they also had to make sacrifices."
Man of the match Asmir Begovic (Stoke City)