A new season and a new era dawned at Anfield on Sunday afternoon. The sense of anticipation around the club and amongst the fans was palpable at kick off. A fresh start after the on and off field problems of the past 12 months or more, and there were plenty of positives to take from the opening league match of 2010/11.
The initial feelings at the final whistle may have been those of disappointment, having surrendered a potential three points in the closing moments, in bizarre fashion. However, having played a large portion of the match with 10 men, a draw – and very nearly a win – can hardly be considered a poor outcome.
The opening exchanges were cagey. Both sides seemed to adopt a fairly cautious approach, particularly Liverpool. The Reds seemed willing to allow the visitors possession and defend deep when doing so. Too often in the opening period Roy Hodgson’s side left too big a gap between midfield and defence to impose any sustained pressure on the Gunners defence. David N’Gog, in particular was often left isolated at the top end of the pitch.
But it was actually after Joe Cole’s sending off, towards the end of the opening half, that Liverpool played their best football. The organisation, hard-work and resolve that the Reds showed having been reduced to 10 men – and then to defend their lead in the second half – will have been especially gratifying for the fans.
Although, by taking the lead Liverpool also demonstrated that they do have the fire power to worry top sides despite their reduced numbers.
It was the visitor’s who had the best of the chances in a distinctly uneventful opening to the game. Thomas Vermaelen tested Pepe Reina with a powerful free-kick. And Arsenal had most of the possession in the opening half, without demonstrating genuine cutting-edge to trouble Jamie Carragher and co.
It was not until the end of the half that Liverpool began to establish themselves as an attacking force. N’Gog had struggled in vain to get the better of the Arsenal centre-backs and lacked support from deep. So it was Glen Johnson who tested Manual Almunia first. The full-back cutting in from the right and swinging in a shot which had to be tipped over the bar.
An N’Gog header from Steven Gerrard’s left wing corner then had to be cleared off the line by Gael Clichy. Yet just as the Reds were building-up some momentum, they were hit by what seemed to be a game changing blow.
Joe Cole has been heralded as a potential saviour upon his arrival at Anfield, yet he could not have imagined a worse league debut in a Red shirt. Cole – never previously sent-off in his career – was dismissed moments before the break.
Playing centrally, just behind N’Gog, he had struggled to make an impression on a tight game. And perhaps that contributed to the over-zealous nature of his challenge on Laurent Koscielny, as Cole sought to make an impact. There was certainly no intent in the challenge, as Cole attempted to block the Czech’s clearance near the Anfield Road end corner flag. But the force in the follow through perhaps encouraged referee Martin Atkinson to produce a red card rather than a yellow, as Koscielny appeared to make the most of the contact.
But Hodgson’s side responded admirably to the set back. Towards the back end of last season there was perhaps a lack of passion and determination in some performances. But that could not be levelled at the team in the second half here.
Under the circumstances the majority inside Anfield would, I am sure, have accepted a draw at the interval. Yet N’Gog gave the Reds a surprise lead just a minute into the second half. Javier Mascherano slide a through-ball into the path of N’Gog, who fired an excellent shot into the roof of the Kop end net from the angle – although Almunia would perhaps have expected to do more to keep the near post effort out.
N’Gog had a tough afternoon and was often isolated up front once Liverpool were reduced to 10 men. However the young Frenchman worked hard to hold the ball and capped off another example of his improvement with a fine finish. He is certainly growing in confidence and can hopefully prove more of an able deputy to Fernando Torres this season.
From then on it was always likely to be a case of backs-to-the-wall for the Anfield outfit. And Liverpool’s defence was genuinely resolute. Restricting chances for an Arsenal side – who did admittedly seem to miss the presence of Cesc Fabregas in midfield – to a minimum. Gerrard and Mascherano hustled excellently in midfield. Whilst Carragher, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger were solid at the back.
Reina – consistently outstanding for years now – produced a couple of fine saves. First from substitute Theo Walcott’s swerving free-kick and later getting a finger tip to a Tomas Rosicky effort which may have dipped under the bar otherwise, after the Czech midfielder had worked himself a glorious chance.
So much so that it almost seemed an injustice that it was the Spanish ‘keeper who’s error ultimately gifted the Gunners an equaliser. The Reds had not often looked like conceding and managed to smother the threat of the likes of Marouane Chamakh. But the pressure which built in the closing stages finally told.
Rosicky’s 90th minute cross caused Reina problems and he could only push the ball out to the lurking Chamakh. The French forward stabbed the ball towards goal, but as the ball came back off the post, in his attempts to gather it, Reina agonisingly only succeeded in carrying the ball into his own net.
Gerrard could still have won the game with an injury time free-kick which was palmed away by Almunia. Before Koscielny was sent-off for a second bookable offence to level things up in the dying seconds. But by then the match was over.
It was a sour note on which to end an otherwise encouraging start for Roy Hodgson. A point against Arsenal when at a numerical disadvantage for much of the game can hardly be construed as a poor result. Yet, to concede the equaliser so late, after defending so well is disappointing. Hodgson was keen to focus on the positives afterwards and will hope to carry these forward into the remainder of the season.
Man of the Match
Worked tirelessly in a deeper midfield role, which is likely to become more familiar. Not often able to show too much as an attacking force but led the teams defensive effort and was resolute alongside Masherano.