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Sep 25, 2010

Revolt in the air as reality hurts Liverpool

There is nothing novel about the protests, but the banners are getting more imaginative. The Kop unfurled its latest message towards Liverpool's American owners on a flag reading: "Plague, famine, war and death, four liars of the apocalypse. Get out of our club." It displayed pictures of Tom Hicks, George Gillett, Christian Purslow and Martin Broughton with question marks above the faces of the managing director and chairman.

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The four liars of the apocalypse may sound like something from Monty Python. "Built by Shanks, broke by Yanks" was a more direct message but, while the Spirit of Shankly group demonstrate their ongoing opposition to the Liverpool board, they have only had an indirect influence in this week's mishaps.

Doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic predictions have become commonplace on Merseyside. An otherwise profitable club, as Purslow has admitted, can barely cover its considerable loans. In happier times, though, they specialised in simpler phrasing. "This is Anfield," once a warning, now seems an invitation to visitors. For all its historic resonance, its powers to intimidate are decreasing as the club declines. Whatever the veracity of the comments from the boardroom, the truth is they are troubled on the pitch.

As Sunderland emulated Northampton in drawing 2-2 on Liverpool's hallowed turf, it was apparent the fear factor was gone. Steve Bruce's side conceded a bizarre goal, weathered an awkward start and nevertheless emerged to play with great assurance. "The pleasing thing was the way we dominated possession," he said. "I've been in sides that have done it [here], but never managed one before." Darren Bent's goals and Titus Bramble's defiance in defence were the dominant themes of the display, but this was a tactical triumph for Bruce in his duel with Roy Hodgson.

Sunderland outnumbered Liverpool in the centre of midfield, where Lee Cattermole, Jordan Henderson and Steed Malbranque formed a fine trio. But, with Raul Meireles and Joe Cole wandering infield from the flanks into no-man's land, the Black Cats were also able to overlap with impunity, the impressive Ahmed Elmohamady and Danny Welbeck allowed to run unchecked at the full-backs.

It helped account for both of Sunderland's goals. For the opener, Almohamady, the Egyptian Bruce has borrowed, crossed and Christian Poulsen met it with a needlessly raised hand. "I don't subscribe to accidental handball, handball should be intentional and there is no way anyone is going to persuade me that was intentional," said an aggrieved Hodgson. Bent converted the resulting penalty.

A Bent double was completed from a second right-wing cross from Onuoha, the Sunderland striker heading past Jose Reina in an instant to highlight his greater anticipation than that of his marker, a lacklustre Glen Johnson.

Liverpool's goals were a combination of the unusual and the normal. The opener was a bone of contention, Fernando Torres capitalising on what was either an under-hit back-pass by Michael Turner or a casual touch towards goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, whom he was expecting to take Sunderland's free kick. Torres advanced and, when confronted with the appealing keeper, passed for Dirk Kuyt to score simply. "A piece of quick thinking by Torres and Kuyt," added Hodgson.

Sunderland, infuriated by referee Stuart Attwell's decision to allow the goal, disagreed. "He's got it wrong," Bruce added. "It was 25 yards from the incident where the free kick should have been taken. I don't think the referee has seen it."

A goal ahead then, Liverpool trailed 2-1 before Torres turned creator a second time, delivering the cross that Gerrard headed in with emphatic brilliance. Just as he did six days before at Old Trafford, the captain squared a match at 2-2 and celebrated jubilantly. This time there was no cruel finale, but, despite Hodgson's strangely positive interpretation, nor was there much to savour. Individual inspiration, rather than collective quality, spared them. The body language of the two talismen can be scrutinised. Each was booked, Torres for a late challenge on Onuoha and Gerrard for an elbow on Danny Welbeck. "It's a strange one," added Bruce. "If it had been Lee Cattermole, he would have been sent off."

As it is, Liverpool's problems are sufficient without Gerrard serving a suspension. "I don't think we are playing like a team in fourth or fifth," Hodgson said. "One of the things we are lacking is that we have to play much more together. There are a lot of new players coming together in the team and we have not had much time."

As he said: "Rome wasn't built in a day." To borrow from another ancient city, Troy was destroyed in 24 hours either. But this is a week when Liverpool, the equivalent of a classical civilisation in English football, look further imperilled.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Titus Bramble - Among Bruce's achievements is getting the best from the talented, but rather error-prone defender. He hardly put a foot wrong today, in a reminder of some outstanding displays for Bruce at Wigan,

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: David Ngog and Daniel Agger had late chances in a forceful ending and Torres may have been unfortunate to see a second-minute goal disallowed, but much of went in between was dreadful. While putting Gerrard in the centre of midfield has had its merits, the search for a winning shape goes on. Meireles, used on the right, has played in three positions in as many league games while Poulsen, another newcomer, is yet to impress.

SUNDERLAND VERDICT: Another terrific performance to follow last week's display against Arsenal. Bruce has a problem when Asamoah Gyan is fully fit, because his five-man midfield is functioning so well at the moment.

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