LFC 1-1 Sunderland: Reality Check

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The first day of every new season brings with it an unstoppable wave of optimism, ridden by every single fan of every single club the world over. The old adage says that it is a time where every team is equal, where anything is possible.

So if Anfield was bouncing at the outset of this afternoon’s game – and it certainly was – then it was for one reason, and one reason alone. The fans could sense it. An air of positivity had been reverberating around the city during a summer of constant improvement, and was now hanging in the air of the club’s famous, hallowed ground. It had all been building up to this one moment; a moment shared by every red across the city, around the world. This was a new beginning.

But it wasn’t simply the start of the season that had Liverpool fans so excited. No – it was something else entirely.

This afternoon’s fixture marked the start of Kenny Dalglish’s first full season at the helm of the club – in his second stint, at least – the true dawning of his new age. His successes throughout the second half of last year, in light of the season ahead, can be thought of as little more than the prologue to what will hopefully be the long, successful story to come.

That was a time of rehabilitation and rejuvenation, marking the transition into Dalglish’s era, not only in terms of style but in the changes to the staff, both on and off the pitch. In the grand scheme of things, it was a period of preparation, and nothing more – six months filled with relatively little pressure, a way for Dalglish to ease his way back into the groove (or, perhaps, to ease Liverpool back into his).

On today’s evidence, however, Dalglish doesn’t quite seem to have finished preparing his side for the task ahead.

Dalglish’s return halfway through last year brought a sense of real possibility; FSG’s summer overhaul of the squad brought a sense of belief; this first day of the new season brought with it that undeniable sense of optimism. All the pieces seemed to be in place.

But those pieces came tumbling anticlimactically to the ground as Liverpool were dragged back to reality, held to an underwhelming 1-1 draw at home to Sunderland in a game that should have been wrapped up within the first 45 minutes.

It was a reminder that for all the preparation, for all the optimism, it still comes down to those 90 minutes – and anything can happen.

Liverpool opened the game in buoyant, fluid fashion, passing at pace and attacking with menace. The game could have been over before it even began had circumstances been slightly different – in many eyes Richardson’s blatant trip on Suarez, who was one-on-one with the goalkeeper, would have been construed as a certain, game-changing red-card. Alas, it wasn’t so in the eyes that mattered on the day.

But Suarez’ resulting penalty kick was a poor effort, and Liverpool only had themselves to blame for not being ahead within the first ten minutes. Of course, Suarez didn’t wait long to make up for it, nodding in the opening goal just moments later – but the real disappointment, looking back, are the missed opportunities, the wasted attempts to capitalise on a first half in which Liverpool were the far stronger, more dominant side.

Instead, Liverpool’s failure to make Sunderland pay led to the away side clinching a draw with what was, in truth, a fantastic strike that in many ways deserved more than a point. But inside Anfield, of course, it’s impossible to sympathise with the visitors.

As proceedings became more and more tense, the reds looked less likely to score – players who were on fire in the first half simply faded away, and those who came into the game barely made an impact (Dirk Kuyt’s supreme effort, as always, being the exception). It was yet another example of something that has plagued Liverpool for far too long, especially at home against lower opposition: when the pressure is on, when great expectations hang in the air, far too often the team falter. It may have taken a wonderful strike for Sunderland to equalise, but this still highlights Liverpool’s lack of killer instinct when it truly counts – and it is this killer instinct that Dalglish must breed into the team to have any chance at success.

The result also underlines the need for defensive reinforcement, or at the very least a little tweaking. The capture of José Enrique has seemingly solved the problem at left-back, and his debut, whilst unspectacular, was steady. It must be remembered that he has been thrown straight into the deep end, with barely any training alongside his teammates under his belt, so one would think that he will become a more imposing figure in the Liverpool backline as time goes by. Certainly, though, another quality centre-back seems like the reds’ final priority heading towards the end of the transfer window – Carragher and Agger may be a formidable partnership on their day, but the slowing of the team’s vice-captain has been long noted, and Agger’s fitness record is less than impressive, as we all know.

The biggest defensive problem this afternoon, though, came in the form of John Flanagan, who afforded Larsson too much time and space to line up his spectacular volley and began to look shakier as the game wore on. With Martin Kelly available on the bench, starting with Flanagan seemed an odd inclusion – and although Dalglish’s faith in his youngsters is certainly refreshing, I would hope that when Johnson and Kelly are both fully fit they will slot in at right-back on the majority of occasions over the coming season, with Flanagan there as a capable backup when called upon.

Despite the game trudging to a frustrating halt as it neared its conclusion, however, there were some real positives in the first half, largely due to the team’s new acquisitions. The pairing of Dalglish and Comolli seems to have resulted in some fantastic signings – certainly, Downing’s extortionate price wasn’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind when his thundering strike rattled high into the air off the crossbar after a dazzling run. Much like the rest of the team, he may have faded away in the second half, but more performances like that of the first 45 minutes will see him become a staple of Liverpool’s wings for years to come. This idea has been used by many to justify his purchase, and on today’s evidence it seems to hold even more accuracy – he may not have been the best player available for the money, but he may well be the best player available to slot into Dalglish’s system.

Another reason for optimism was the performance of Charlie Adam – in glimpses, at least. His acquisition, though capping a long, arduous pursuit, was met with limited fanfare as it came on the back of Henderson’s signing and the return of Aquilani. Indeed, it seemed like Liverpool may be heading towards having an embarrassment of riches in the central midfield positions – but Adam may yet turn out to be the jewel in the centre of the crown. His quick passing and slick vision was at the heart of Liverpool’s play in the first half (though, like many, this trailed away as the game wore on), and FSG’s desire to snap him up – which revolved largely around his deadly set-pieces – was instantly justified with the assist for Suarez’ opening goal… from a free-kick, no less. Add to that his trademark efficiency from corners, which was displayed at times today, and that assist may prove to be the first of many for Adam – the beginning of something special indeed.

Make no mistake, then: today was about more than the start of the new season. It marks the true beginning of a new chapter in the club’s history – a blank canvas on which Dalglish may now build his vision, and in the grand scheme of things, two dropped points won’t live too long in the memory. What counts is how the team recover from this afternoon’s setback, and how they perform over the course of the entire season – starting with Arsenal.

It may not have gone quite to plan, but today still marks a fresh start for Liverpool, and whilst it may be unrealistic to dream too high, the old adage certainly had it right – going forward, anything is still possible.

Liverpool: Reina, Flanagan, Enrique, Agger, Carragher, Lucas, Adam, Downing, Henderson (Kuyt), Suarez (Meireles), Carroll.
Subs not used: Doni, Spearing, Ngog, Kelly, Robinson.

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