Liverpool fail to send out the right message
Sheffield United 1 - 1 LiverpoolSo here we go again and even on day one of this brand new Premiership season, a crucial afternoon in the title race was upon us.
First impressions count in this game and if Liverpool were to live up to their billing as genuine contenders to Chelsea's apparently unbreakable dominance of the English game, Rafa Benitez's men needed to lay down a marker.
Against the hot favourites for relegation from the Premiership, this was not a day for lame excuses for failure, but by the end, that is just what we got from the Reds and their bedraggled looking manager.
Gloomy odds on survival mattered little to the hoards of Sheffield United fans who made their way to Bramall Lane with the sort excitement that has been missing from their stride for all too long. After so many promotion near misses, this was the afternoon so many in this football mad city had waited so long for and the noise that rippled around the sell-out crowd prior to kick-off send a shiver down the spine.
The pre-match performance of Bramall Lane's booming PA system was certainly Premiership class and with a set of tunes that clearly hit the right notes with Blades followers, this compact ground was rocking by the time the time the two teams emerged from the tunnel. Such raucous home support may just be one of their best hopes of defying those odds and surviving in the Premiership this season.
Our focus for the day was on Liverpool and once this game got underway, it became rapidly clear that we would be provided with as many questions as answers as they stumbled through the first test of their title credentials.
Many an observer has based their positive predictions for Liverpool on the back of a solitary victory against an under-prepared and badly organised Chelsea side in last Sunday's Community Shield. However, such a blinkered view neatly blocks out some of their less than impressive pre-season displays ahead of that game in Cardiff, so this was an occasion to show that a summer of squad reshaping at Anfield has had the desired effect.
Benitez sprung something of a surprised when he named Brazilian signing Fabio Aurelio in an advanced midfield role rather than his preferred slot at left-back, with his decision to leave natural wingers Mark Gonzalez and Jermaine Pennant on the bench clearly made with next week's Champions League game against Maccabi Haifa in mind.
His move to pair Robbie Fowler with Craig Bellamy up front was also mildly unexpected as the theory was that Peter Crouch was penned in to be the ideal foil for either of Liverpool's two little predators, yet in these formative days of the season such selection dilemmas are yet to be resolved.
A scoreless first half represented a victory for the underdogs and while Liverpool had dominated possession, their lack of cutting edge up front and invention in midfield was blatantly evident. On the plus side, their work rate was impressive, with the hunger to match Sheffield United's passion their best quality, but they will need much more than raw determination to match Chelsea this season.
Lacking ideas on set-plays and troubled every time the speedy Danny Webber ran at their back line, the half-time whistle was greeted with a roar that must have been heard all over Sheffield, yet the volume levels were to be upped to previously unimaginable levels 60 seconds after the re-start.
Losing John Arne Riise and Jamie Carragher due to injury inside the first 34 minutes left Liverpool with a defensive line-up that has never before played as a unit and as a fizzing free-kick was spun into the box by David Unsworth, Blades debutant Rob Hulse scored the first Premiership goal of the season.
Liverpool's marking was of Championship standard, with Aurelio guilty of allowing Hulse a free header from point blank range and an afternoon that started with such high hopes for the visitors was rapidly developing into a nightmare for Benitez and his team.
How a side reacts to a setback is often a sign of their quality and with Sheffield United sinking into their shell, Liverpool piled on the pressure. After a series of near misses, a fine one two between Fowler and Steven Gerrard finished in a penalty that the former tucked away with ease. TV replays suggested referee Rob Styles was harsh to give the spot kick as Chris Morgan failed to make contact with Gerrard in the box.
After that touch of good fortune, the moment had come for Benitez's men to prove they could then find the killer touch all champions possess, yet just when it seemed the introduction of Peter Crouch seemed obvious, he took off the struggling Fowler and threw Jermaine Pennant into the fray. Leaving Bellamy up front alone for the final 15 minutes was a curious move that drew the sting out of Liverpool's final flourish.
There was only one team celebrating at the end and for Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez, there was much to ponder as he faced the media hoard.
"We did not play well in the first half, we know that," conceded a rattled coach who claimed to be bemused by the physical nature of Sheffield United's game that he blames for the injuries to Carragher and Riise.
"If we want to have a successful season, then we have to show more of what we produced in the second period. Dropping points now is not good news, but you never know what might happen this weekend. It was a tough away game to start off with and we will take this.
'Still, they saw this is a marathon season in England and we are still in the first kilometre, so let's not talk about the significance of dropping two points now."
It came as little surprise that Sheffield United boss Neil Warnock, the would-be head of an Anti-Referees Association, wasted little time in moving onto a familiar topic after his first game as a Premiership manager.
"Our lad didn't touch Gerrard, but that is the sort of decision that we generally tend to get at this club," stated Warnock, whose controversial post-match briefings are bound to be a delight to attend this season.
"Rob Styles is a good referee, but he got the major decision wrong today. No one involved in professional football will think that was a penalty, but they didn't deserve a penalty and it does leave a sour taste. If he thought it was a foul, he should have sent the player off, so it was strange. Robbie Fowler said to me that it was never a penalty, but there you go.
"This was a great day for Sheffield United, but it could have been even better. I was top of the Premier League for a few minutes you know. That might never happen again! Still, I'm proud of the lads because that was one of the top teams in England and we had a lot of heroes out there. The shame is we will all be talking about one man and he didn't kick a ball today."
In a week when the A-level results were released to students across Britain, it seems fitting to give Liverpool a grade after their first exam of the season and it is hard to give them much more than a C- for their effort at Bramall Lane. With so much room for improvement, Chelsea will not be quaking in their boots.
• MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard: After a slow start, the Liverpool captain began to dictate the game as his side battled back from the shock of going behind. However, performing for just 45 minutes will not be enough for Benitez.
• FACE IN THE CROWD: New England boss Steve McClaren was sitting just down the stand from us and Blades fan Sean Bean looked every inch the Hollywood superstar in his shades as the James Bond baddie walked past the assembled media pack.
• FOOD WATCH: The early kick-off meant a pre-match snack was in order and the chicken and mushroom pie on offer hit the mark.
• INJURY UPDATE: John Arne Riise looked to have done serious damage to his ankle in the first half, but the word is he only has a sprained his ankle.
• ONE TO WATCH: Sheffield United's Danny Webber has long been hailed as one of the most promising young players in the game and on the evidence of this impressive opening day display, he will be a threat in the Premiership this season.
• LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Benitez clearly felt this was a day for his 'little forwards' to unlock the door to victory, but their lack of physical presence up front gave the Blades a chance to claim a morale boosting point. He now looks to have the raw materials to build a powerful side, but this Liverpool effort did not suggest they are about to end the club's long wait for an English league title this season.