Sunday 17 November 2019

Liverpool lack finishing touch

Sunderland 1
Liverpool 1

Louise Taylor at the Stadium of Light

Liverpool moved the ball around fluently enough, created several chances, possessed a fabulous young winger in Raheem Sterling and even scored a rare goal but something was missing.





If Andy Carroll had been on the pitch rather than nursing an injury at West Ham, Brendan Rodgers's team would surely have secured a much craved victory on one of the more poignant evenings of their long history.

Instead, the Merseysiders had to make do with an ultimately nervy point and the looming prospect of some uncomfortably forensic analysis of the new regime's shortcomings.

The flags outside the Stadium of Light were at half mast, multiple banners demanded 'Justice for the 96' and Liverpool's team emerged from the tunnel wearing black tracksuit tops emblazoned with that most haunting number.

Brendan Rodgers knew that the end of a week in which the British prime minister had apologised unequivocally for the events at Hillsborough 23 years ago was the perfect time for his side to record their first Premier League win of the season.

Appearing suitably psyched up, Liverpool started well, their momentum only boosted by Sunderland's initial inability to string two passes together.

A fluid, essentially 4-2-1-3 visiting formation featuring Jonjo Shelvey as the link between midfield and attack and Fabio Borini at centre-forward certainly seemed to confuse Martin O'Neill's players.

Gradually though, Steven Gerrard began losing a little positional discipline and Sunderland's Jack Colback, spotting the gaps as England's captain rampaged forward from his supposedly deep role alongside Joe Allen, began initiating the odd home attack from central midfield.

Even so, Simon Mignolet made three smart first-half saves to deny Borini as his defence were repeatedly mesmerised by Liverpool's movement and positional inter-changing. How O'Neill must have wished that a thigh injury had not sidelined Adam Johnson, his England winger.

At least he had Steven Fletcher on the pitch. Very much against the run of play, the £12m attacking signing from Wolves scored his third goal in two games.

It came at the end of a move started by Colback, continued by Craig Gardner and featuring lax marking from Luis Suarez and, most negligently, Glen Johnson. When Gardner, overlapping from right-back, danced around left-back Johnson with embarrassing ease, Jose Reina could not quite reach his ensuing cross and Fletcher pounced to shoot Sunderland into an unlikely lead.

As Rodgers, unusually, lost his cool and berated Johnson, Liverpool's game went a little flat. It took young Raheem Sterling and his exciting talents to get them going again and Danny Rose, newly arrived on Wearside on loan from Tottenham, was given a tough time at left-back by the 17-year-old winger.

Unfortunately, Sterling had no orthodox striker to direct his crosses towards and it became impossible not to wonder how many goals Andy Carroll might have scored in tandem with him. For a while before half-time an equaliser felt imminent and when John O'Shea seemed to trip Suarez in the area visiting fans appealed for a penalty. Sunderland supporters simply saw a dive and Martin Atkinson, the referee, agreed, booking Suarez. It was the Uruguayan's third yellow card in four League games this season.

With Colback, still Sunderland's best player, making things sporadically tough for Rodgers's team in midfield and Gerrard shooting narrowly wide, the tension in Rodger's technical area body language became palpable. Off came Borini and on went Stewart Downing assuming his preferred left side attacking role as Suarez shifted to a more central position. Courtesy of a little help from Titus Bramble -- who replaced Carlos Cuellar at half time -- Suarez swiftly equalised.

Sterling crossed, the ball bounced off Bramble's shin and, as Suarez's fine volley hit the back of the net, a relieved Rodgers finally relaxed a little.

Suarez -- who rather bafflingly for a supposed centre-forward took corners -- then created a wonderful chance for Shelvey. Not for the first time Mignolet's save baled out his defence and when Sunderland's Sebastian Larsson escaped what surely should have been a sending off for a dreadful tackle, Liverpool's manager must have suspected fortune was frowning on him.

Observer

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