The anticipation; the positivity which descended on Anfield for the opening day of the Premier League season was more conspicuous than ever amongst the arriving home fans.
In a game which epitomised the age-old cliché; Liverpool looked slick, fluid and threatening, if at times a little rusty, during the first 45 minutes. Yet, after the interval, the Reds lost their way, tired and Sunderland pegged them back and could ultimately have threatened worse.
Any doubts over this Liverpool performance can be quickly dispelled on recognition of the fact that all but 4 of the starting XI against Sunderland were relative new-comers to the Liverpool set-up – to varying extents.
Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Jose Enrique were all thrust into the thick of the action for their debuts. Enrique having only trained once with his team-mates beforehand. And Henderson against his former employers. Whilst, the retuning hero Luis Suarez, Andy Carroll and John Flannagan have amassed sparse appearances in a red shirt between them to date.
This is very much a new-look Liverpool team, in its embryonic phase. And, considering that there were a number of positives to take from the afternoon – particularly in the first half.
Although similar could also be said of Steve Bruce’s side. For whom many players were also making their debut appearance for a club which has been the single most active in the transfer market over the summer months.
The Reds were much the superior side during the first half and probably should have been more than one goal to the good come half-time.
That goal came from the head of Suarez on 11 minutes. Adam’s floated free-kick from the right found the run of the Uruguayan, untracked by a visiting defender. And his glancing header beat Simon Mignolet in the Sunderland goal. The Kop reaffirming their gratitude towards the striker, who understandably tired late on before being replaced by Raul Meireles, having only recently returned to training.
Prior to that, Suarez had spurned the opportunity to give Liverpool an even earlier lead, when he sent a penalty kick well over the bar. Having been brought down by Kieran Richardson when through on goal. Whilst Carroll was unfortunate to have a well-taken goal ruled out for a very questionable push on Anton Ferdinand. And impressive debutant Downing thumped an effort off the bar, after the sort of single-handed, direct slalom which had the home crowd purring.
The visitors were also lucky not to be reduced to 10-men when Richardson brought down Suarez for the early penalty. By the letter of the law the former Man United man should have seen red. Although – as Dalglish hinted post-match – perhaps the double-punishment of penalty and sending off is harsh in such a situation.
It was not all positive though. Despite some slick passing and pleasing interchanges, many moves broke down in the final third of the pitches. Something which will only improve with playing time and familiarity.
Whilst, despite the arrival of Downing, there was some concern regarding a lack of width. Dirk Kuyt was a notable omission from the starting line-up. But his introduction at the expense of Henderson belatedly offered Liverpool an outlet on the right.
The manner in which Dalglish’s team is set-up dictates that width should be provided by the full-backs – at Anfield at least. Yet, the Reds the presence of a full-back in the final third. Flannagan had probably his toughest afternoon in a red shirt to date.
In the second half Liverpool displayed far more of their frailties. Not helped by fatigue; nonetheless Liverpool created few chances and barely tested Mignolet after the break. Whilst far too often resorting to the long ball to Carroll as they lacked direction late on.
Sunderland themselves improved. Offered their hosts far less time on the ball. And, marshalled by debutant Wes Brown, gave Carroll and Suarez little time and space.
It was Sebastian Larsson – yet another debutant – who pulled the Black Cats level. His stunning first time volley at the far post from Ahmed Elmohamady’s cross gave Pepe Reina no chance.
This could have made different reading had Richardson been dismissed or Carroll’s first-half goal been allowed. But Liverpool will have learnt much from this result. Both in terms of the positives and their shortcomings.
The clubs on-looking American investors may have arrived at Anfield in anticipation of witnessing the early fruits of their hefty financial investments. However, they will have left with as much a realisation of the work which is still to be done. And the patience which must be offered to Dalglish and his squad if they are to deliver long-term of the expectations. Inspite of some early promise.
Man of the Match
Downing was impressive on debut but faded. However, Suarez reaffirmed his status as one of Liverpool’s most prized assests. Showed few ill-effects from the Copa America.