Yet again Liverpool come away empty-handed from a match in which they were largely dominant, this time falling at Anfield to Manchester United. Most would have predicted that today would be troubling for what could have happened off the pitch--or on it in the pre-match niceties--but in the end nearly everyone's left talking about refereeing and injuries, which is as good an indicator as any that, even if the football was very good, everything is in fact the worst.
Liverpool 1: Gerrard 46'
United 2: Rafael 51', van Persie (pen.) 81'
There were no surprises for Brendan Rodgers's eleven, with order restored from front to back--Jose Enrique's form and/or fitness kept him out again, with Glen Johnson deputizing on the left, Martin Kelly on the right, and Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger in central defense ahead of Pepe Reina in goal. Jonjo Shelvey was included with Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen in the midfield, a deserved reward for his early form, and Luis Suarez made the shift back centrally in the forward line, with Fabio Borini left and Raheem Sterling right.
After the pre-match festivities went off seemingly without a hitch--some outlets reported chanting from the away supporters during the Hillsborough tribute--Liverpool were off and running, bursting out of the gates and taking the match to the visitors. It was a terrific way to start the match, and that it continued for much of the opening half was plenty heartening. Early chances came for Suarez, Gerrard, and Borini, with Gerrard getting the pick of the bunch from a well-worked low corner from Jonjo Shelvey.
United were pinned back and didn't get any chances on Pepe Reina's goal, with Liverpool doing all of the attacking and the guests mostly hanging on. And while they didn't convert any of their chances, something seemed different about Liverpool, with more confidence and fluidity in their play. Stable at the back, patient in the midfield, and threatening if a bit impatient up top.
Unfortunately the half ended on the worst possible note, as Jonjo Shelvey was given a straight red card in the 39th minute for a challenge on Jonny Evans. The midfielder had just won a challenge to knock the ball loose, and both he and Evans closed fast in an effort to win the tackle. It looked terrible live--always a sending off, actually--but on subsequent replays, it was clear that while Shelvey's challenge certainly wasn't pretty Evans came in studs-up, as he is wont to do, and should have seen a booking as well, and there's a fair argument for a red.
Either way, Liverpool ended the first half with Shelvey coming off, cursing Alex Ferguson along the way, and Liverpool slumped into themselves for the first time in the match. Brendan Rodgers appeared to have used the half-time break well, though, as the hosts were back on top after the restart and took the lead just a minute into the second half.
Suso had come on for Fabio Borini, a move that looked tactical at the time (we now know that Borini's ankle was badly swollen), and he played a mildly dangerous cross into the area. After a half-clearance Glen Johnson popped it up and over a defender and tried to push forward, but another ricochet sent the ball back towards the middle of the box. Steven Gerrard was impossibly alone, with time and space to control with his chest and send an unstoppable low drive past Aders Lindegaard. Anfield erupted, you erupted, everyone erupted.
And then they sunk back and conceded the equalizer within five minutes on a fabulous curling effort by Rafael, who took a touch with his left foot before curling it past Pepe Reina at the far post. For all his struggles over the past few seasons there was nothing Reina could have done, and Liverpool had yet again conceded a goal on the opposition's first chance of the match.
To their credit Liverpool recovered nicely, with Suarez forcing Lindegaard into a good save with a left-footed shot just a few minutes later and Suso following suit just before creating a threat for Suarez with a perfectly-weighted ball into space that the Uruguayan could only fizz back across goal. It was all looking very good for Liverpool, at least until it wasn't anymore in the 76th minute. Daniel Agger's errant pass freed Antonio Valencia on the break, and as Glen Johnson and Pepe Reina closed in, the winger fell to ground in a heap, instantly looking back towards a compliant Mark Halsey, who awarded the penalty. Five minutes went by before Robin van Persie put his effort through Pepe Reina's gloves, and from there United had only a header from Martin Kelly--who left with a knee injury as well--to see off before they took all three points
That we're forced to talk about refereeing is infuriating, and while I'm never really inclined to blame a result on a referee, it's probably not great that I can't really recall all the decisions that were either questionable or just plain wrong. Evans' challenge with Shelvey, Scholes clattering through Sterling on the near side, Evans' questionable contact with Suarez in the penalty area, Suso getting scythed down with an advantage played rather than a free kick awarded in the dying moments and Liverpool on nine men. It's not conspiracy theorizing to say that Mark Halsey was shit today, it's fact, and it influenced Liverpool's performance.
Whether or not it cost them the match might be debatable, but given that two of his decisions--Shelvey's sending off and the Valencia penalty--had such a large impact on the match, it's fair to say that his presence was felt. That's too bad, really, because what had unfolded prior to the Shelvey red was a very good match of football, especially for Liverpool. It's felt forced to celebrate negative results thus far this season, and all the caveats about Liverpool getting up for big matches still apply, but today provided an extended look at what this club is capable of.
At least until everyone started getting hurt. They're already thin as it is, and with Daniel Agger suffered a suspected medial ligament injury, Martin Kelly limping off after a nasty-looking twist of his right knee, and Fabio Borini taken off with ankle swelling, Liverpool are well and truly in crisis mode in terms of personnel. I don't think that's an overstatement; there was already a shortage of reliable first-team talent, and all three who came off injured today are part of that contingent.
The lone positive that emerged from the injuries was the introudction of Suso, who was scary confident--the arrogance Rodgers referenced--in his first Premier League match and looked among Liverpool's most comfortable on the ball. He joined a midfield that had already benefited from a more calm and composed Steven Gerrard, and Joe Allen, while not doing anything flashy, continued to do what's needed in the holding role in rendering Shinji Kagawa utterly obsolete. The back line was very solid before Shelvey's day was done, and up top there were again moments of utter brilliance from both Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling, with the latter running Patrice Evra ragged in the opening half. Borini's still up and down, but he'll get there.
That's a lot of words to say that despite it all--Halsey being Halsey, United being United, and Liverpool's fitness being Liverpool's fitness--there's plenty to take away from today. Disappointing, sure, but there's a renewed sense of optimism that the club is moving forward, and if they can manage improvement from here, there's no doubt the results will come.