SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers (r) listens to coach Colin Pascoe before the Barclays Premier league match between Sunderland and Liverpool at Stadium of Light on September 15, 2012 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
On an important day for the club and its supporters after the events of the week, Liverpool overcome a largely mediocre display to earn a point from Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. We still haven't seen a complete performance from Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers, and today served more to underline the areas in which Liverpool need improvement rather than to provide any signs of growth.
Sunderland 1: Fletcher 29'
Liverpool 1: Suarez 71'
There were few surprises ahead of kickoff, with a team sheet altered only by the inclusion of Jonjo Shelvey over Nuri Şahin and the fitness of Jose Enrique, who started on the bench with Martin Kelly recovered from his knock earlier in the week and Glen Johnson shifting over to the left. A start for Shelvey is something many of us had been looking for; that it came at the expense of Şahin was marginally disappointing but expected, with Steven Gerrard not likely dropping out of the eleven anytime soon. Oussama Assaidi's presence on the bench proved to be the most notable change, and it finally gave Liverpool some semblance of attacking threat to bring into the fold.
And they did their best to the keep the neverending narrative alive, piecing together a few nice spells of possession and a handful of either half- or clear-cut chances for the opening twenty minutes. Fabio Borini nearly took advantage of a weak Carlos Cuellar header to smash one off Simon Mignolet from close range, and minutes later he put a half-volley on goal that Mignolet did well to get to. Possession, upper hand, run of play--it was all in Liverpool's favor.
Which meant that Sunderland were destined to take the lead, of course, and a complete breakdown of Liverpool's defense and Steven Fletcher combined to give the hosts the opener. Luis Suarez shut off, Glen Johnson got turned, Pepe Reina was flat-footed, Martin Skrtel was ball-watching and lost Fletcher, and it was 1-0 to Sunderland. Brendan Rodgers' side did everything he expected in dominating possession and being patient in possession, and then they did everything we expected in going a goal down.
The rest of the first half provided little in the way of improvement or encouragement, and while the start of the second gave us a few glimpses of promise--with a curling Glen Johnson strike off the crossbar to boot--we still didn't get the type of performance that saw Liverpool grow into a side that looked convincing enough to come from behind for the victory.
That started to change ten minutes into the half, as Liverpool pressed forward with more urgency and commitment. Steven Gerrard came onto a layoff from Jonjo Shelvey on 60 minutes and had plenty of space but could only nick the outside of the post. Five minutes later--just after Stewart Downing replaced Fabio Borini--Martin Skrtel forced Mignolet into a save with a headerafter a wasteful Gerrard shot ricocheted back towards goal, and finally Liverpool looked like scoring was actually possible.
And they finally did in the 71st minute after a wonderful stepover from Raheem Sterling, who gave himself enough space to whip a cross in from the right. The initial contact from Suarez led to a deflection off Titus Bramble straight back to the Uruguayan, who made no mistake in volleying past Mignolet with his left foot at the near post. No surprise that it was Sterling creating the chance, and Suarez's up-and-down ability to finish thankfully turned out to be on the up.
Liverpool huffed and puffed from there, and both sides wasted a handful of dangerous-seeming attacking moves as the match wound down. A clear chance at a winner just wouldn't come, though, and things ended with a scrappy back-and-forth in the final minutes as the points were shared.
Today was hard to make sense of given the stew of emotions--disappointed in quite a bit of what we saw, relieved it wasn't a loss, angry that I'm relieved it wasn't a loss, excited to see Raheem Sterling do so well, sad that Steven Gerrard continues to play so poorly after how much he's given the club, curious to see where things go from here, and, maybe worst of all, completely and utterly unsurprised that things ended up the way they did.
There's about three or four positives to take from this match, and Raheem Sterling occupies two or three of those spaces. He continues to impress, continues to perplex defenders and draw fouls, and continues to carry the torch as one of the lone sources of optimism during Liverpool's dim opening weeks. He was lively all day, with the move that led to the equalizer an excellent way to cap another display as Liverpool's most potent and promising attacking player. Luis Suarez looked better after moving centrally with Fabio Borini--who had brief flashes of positivity but struggled again--coming off. Right now it's those two or bust, and with the weeks ahead, that's a frightening prospect.
The midfield was disappointing as a collective, with Joe Allen off-form (but still working his ass off), Jonjo Shelvey looking lost, and Steven Gerrard continuing to be the Steven Gerrard that we dread watching. Lucas' absence was felt in a very profound manner today, as we saw that without Joe Allen doing the work of at least two midfielders, Liverpool are going to be very badly overrun. The defense wasn't poor--Martin Kelly looked much improved and Glen Johnson had a solid second-half--but Steven Fletcher's goal exposed Liverpool from front to back, with a number of individuals erring and the collective proving incapable of adjusting.
What Liverpool do with today's performance is anyone's guess, as it didn't feel like any sort of progress and wasn't quite a regression. That's not any sort of comfort, obviously, and with challenging fixtures coming thick and fast over the next few weeks, that'll need to change.