Sheffield United 1 Liverpool 1 : The Obligatory Opening Day Draw

Posted by Mark_P on August 21, 2006, 06:54:30 PM

After three long months spent in anticipation of the new season, it’s fair to say the start to the campaign did little to fuel the already heady expectations of the Reds.  After the performance in Cardiff six days previously, 4,000 Reds made the trip headed across the Pennines on Saturday morning in an optimistic mood – a contrast to the rather subdued atmosphere a few hours later on the return trip.

The kick off was delayed for around five minutes, yet the Reds (Or in this case Yellows) delayed their entrance into the game until an hour later.  The starting line-up didn’t exactly install confidence; Kromkamp taking the place of the unfortunately injured Finnan, Zenden keeping Alonso and Pennant out the side and the omission of Gonzalez all gave cause for caution.  But with the new season finally starting and the squad taking shape, it would have taken a lot to dampen the mood of Reds fans – or the dismal first half performance on Saturday to be precise.

A game against a newly promoted side is always a hard game to play – not to mention an away game against the new boys.  The last time we took on a newly promoted side on the opening day was the three all draw at the Riverside back in 1996 – proof that these encounters pit you up against not only eleven players playing the biggest game of their lives, but a certain full house making a racket.  Brammell Lane was no exception; the United fans gave a good account of themselves and certainly helped on their side, although their tannoy announcer needs a course on not jumping the gun. 

Despite the Liverpool fan’s best efforts, the same wasn’t happening with our own side.  John Arne Riise’s injury after falling after a 50-50, gave an introduction to Mark Gonzalez, with Fabio Aurelio moving from left midfield to left back.  Jamie Carragher’s injury after a bad challenge from Rob Hulse meant he was replaced by the impressive Daniel Agger.  Not only had we lost two of our best defenders, we had used up two substitutions by the 35 minute mark.  With Jermaine Pennant and Peter Crouch left on the bench, the two injuries meant Rafa couldn’t bring either of the two on too early and couldn’t bring both on. 

Despite the clearly evident lack of real talent in Colin Wanker’s side, the Blades were being spurred on by the lack of challenges in the Reds midfield and picking holes through the middle.  Kromkamp had a shocking game; positionally he was never where he should have been and his passing and tackling were well below par.  Maybe the strong speculation surrounding his future at the club has got to him.  He was certainly not alone in the first half; Zenden tried his best the become the first ever player to pass THROUGH an opposition player, Sami Hyypia’s lack of pace was exposed too often and Steven Gerrard didn’t look like he even wanted to start trying to fight for the ball, wrong position or not.

Aurelio showed why he has come from La Liga with a ‘free kick specialist’ tag when his free kick was whipped over the wall and dipped viciously, making Paddy Kenny produce an excellent stop.  The only real encouraging sign of the first half was Fowler and Bellamy up front who produced some excellent link up play, with Fowler dropping and waiting for Bellamy to run before trying the pass or vice-versa.  It was through the link up between the two that Bellamy fired across goal from a difficult angle, probably the best move for the Reds for the whole half.

With everyone still finishing their Carlsberg in a plazzy bottle downstairs (£2.50 a pop!) the cheers from the Sheffield United fans could be heard straight away, a slap in the face for those of us who claimed during the interval that “things could only get better”.  With one sub left, and a score of misfiring players, the third opening draw in a row seemed like a good result.

Hulse’s goal – an unmarked header from a free kick – actually got Liverpool going, with more purpose to their game.  Gerrard was playing central and still not really impressing, although Momo Sissoko was yet again superb in the middle.  Gonzalez had pace to burn and produced a few excellent crosses, and Bellamy and Fowler up front linked up well as they had done first half.  Fowler had a chance to level but his attempt at goal was turned wide.  Hyypia had hit the bar only seconds after United’s goal, and it seemed that all we need was someone who would put that final ball away – maybe if the signing of Dirk Kuyt had been concluded a few days earlier we would have won by a fair few clear goals.

After seventy minutes, Gerrard burst into the game, playing a great one two with Fowler and losing his footing after going past Chris Morgan.  The away end groaned at yet another missed opportunity.  I had turned round and was bemoaning what seemed like a likely loss, when everyone around me started cheering.  The first thing I thought was that Paddy Kenny had fucked it up ala Tim Flowers.  The sea of red and white surrounding the ref showed that we had in fact been given a penalty, which could be described at very, very best as “generous”.

Fowler stepped up, waited to see which way Kenny was going to dive before placing the ball in the opposite direction.  At this point there seemed like there would be only one winner.  Brammell Lane was silent bar the away end, but Liverpool failed to take advantage.  Pennant replaced Fowler but had little opportunity to impress, and Rob Styles brought the season’s opener to an end, our third away draw on the first game in three years.

It’s easy to berate the start and look at it as two points dropped before we’ve even started, but a draw could be looked at as a decent result in what was a tough game.  The fact that for some reason Jose Mourinho cried that Chelsea were always given a tough start earlier this summer means that Rafa Benitez should be down at Soho Square demanding to see the supposed computer generator at the FA – three tough away games in three years to start with, not to mention facing newly bought and spent up Chelsea on the first game of the season before.  No wonder we never seem to get off to a flyer.

Aurelio played well at left back, and showed an excellent range of passing as well as good judgement in the tackle, although Sami Hyypia alongside him looked poor.  People always come out and reckons that Hyypia will soon be deposed of his first team place, yet Sami always manages to answer his critics.  If this display is anything to go by, the partnership of Agger and Carragher could be first choice by October, although as I say, we’ve said that before.  Agger was excellent, and has come on leaps on bounds since his arrival eight months ago.

Kromkamp’s head seemed to be elsewhere and it’s clear from reports from Anfield that he might not be here by September.  Zenden is the new whipping boy of the squad, but his erratic passing and tendency to dive in when it wasn’t needed showed that he can never be considered a real threat to Alonso, Sissoko or Gerrard’s place in the middle.  Sissoko was again excellent and was everywhere; his passing has improved ten fold since his arrival.

Gerrard was praised in the papers, claiming his move into the centre started Liverpool’s fight back, but his first half display, and lots of the second half, stunk.  He may not be in his favoured position (Although it was a position he claimed he loved playing in for England in midweek) but he never ran after anything that was a few yards away, and even when he’s lost the ball he’s just stop, look at the sky and not bother tracking back.  He did well at times certainly, but overall I couldn’t help get the feeling he either couldn’t be arsed or had run himself into the ground on Wednesday.

Gonalez carried on from impressing at Lincoln and Haifa with an impressive display on the wing.  He can certainly cross a ball and has pace to burn, meaning Mr Kewell will have a huge task on his hands to reclaim a first team place this season.

A difficult first game out the way is one way of looking at this, but the overall performance, especially first half was the real cause of concern as the coaches and trains back to Liverpool made their way across the Pennines.  With Kuyt, Crouch, Alonso, Finnan and Pennant all missing (OK Pennant played a few minutes) it’s clear this wasn’t our full strength side, with Rafa maybe keeping one eye on the trip to Kiev.

If we can take the negatives from this and work on it, at least we should be ironing out the creases early on, such as the need for a new right back and a settled midfield.  But a good result in the Ukraine tomorrow and a win over the Hammers on Saturday, with Kuyt surely the worst odds of all time to get a few, and by this time next week we’ll again be filling the forums and pubs with talk of a parade next May for number 19.

No cause for excitement, but no cause for real panic either.

Reds:  Reina; Riise (Gonzalez), Hyypia, Carragher (Agger), Kromkamp; Gerrard, Sissoko, Zenden, Aurelio; Fowler (Pennant), Bellamy.

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