Guangdong 3: Steer 46', Lin 90', Hongbo 92'
And so a new season begins. Or at least the road to it does. Certainly without the extended break forced by the European Championships and World Cup in recent years it doesn't feel like as much of a wait as in the past, when half the players would have just now been starting into their short summer breaks following international commitments. Still, any time without Liverpool football can feel like a long time, and it was good to get back with some familiar faces—plus a few unfamiliar ones—with the preseason Asian tour kicking off for good in Guangzhou with an at times engaging and other times sloppy friendly against China League One side Guangdong Sunray Cave.
The first half saw Liverpool send out a side mostly made up of last season's fringe players. As speculated, Peter Gulacsi started in goal with Danny Wilson getting a rare game at center back in front of him alongside John Flanagan, once more filling in at left back and at times looking decidedly uncomfortable as an almost purely right-footed player on the left. Christian Poulsen nominally anchored the midfield of what was something of a 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid, with Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey sitting ahead of him in the center while Dani Pacheco patrolled the left. With David N'Gog at times playing striker and at times helping to cover the right flank while Joe Cole at times provided the reverse—at least when he wasn't starting to look winded in the sweltering heat of Southern China—the side was rounded out with regulars Jamie Carragher and Martin Kelly at the back.
For the most part it was a group that looked competent if pedestrian against low-level competition, albeit competition who would be up to match speed in the midst of the Chinese domestic season. There were some slick moments to latch on to, though, with Cole taking his hands off his hips early on for just about long enough to float a cross from the right to an unmarked Christian Poulsen, who slotted into the bottom of the net for Liverpool's first goal of the 2011-12 preseason. And on the whole, both Cole and Poulsen actually looked fairly capable in the forward third, though that both failed to track back with any conviction when they should in theory have been going out of their way to secure places in the squad was cause for mild concern—especially when late in the first Christian Poulsen would balance out his early goal by failing to cover on a Guangdong break, playing a key role in the Chinese side's first goal.
To be fair to Poulsen, though, that goal was down to a series of errors and generally sloppy play, from Jonjo Shelvey holding on to the ball for ages while seeking out a killer pass before turning it over and sitting on the turf, to Martin Kelly getting caught up the pitch, to goalkeeper Gulacsi failing to clear a floating cross just begging to be punched away.
Between the two markers David N'Gog would manage a cool finish after being sent clear on goal by Jonjo Shelvey, while Pacheco would manage to flub the finish on a slick bit of interplay in the attacking third with N'Gog and Spearing. On the whole, then, everybody got to run around a bit—even if some were already showing more signs than others of being willing to put in a hard shift—Liverpool managed a few memorable passages of play, and Dalglish's side went into the half up two goals to one.
If the first half was largely a run out for the reserves, the second provided a more regular core of starters supplemented by a trio of promising kids after Liverpool changed their entire eleven to kick things off. That in itself provided a welcome change from the more standard procedure of subjugating fans to a drip-feed of endless substitutions that can often be the case in friendlies.
Once again the side ended up looking something of a 4-1-4-1, with the wide men more distinctly reserved than they had been in the first. This midfield saw prospect Conor Coady at the base of Alberto Aquilani and Charlie Adam, a first team debut for one, an unlikely return for another, and a Liverpool debut for the third. Early on Adam seemed to show the most nerves of the three, appearing to force a number of long balls that repeatedly fizzed twenty yards past Dirk Kuyt on the right, to all appearances trying too hard to live up to his billing as a long-ball maestro and not doing anyone much good in the process. Still, to his credit he soon calmed down and showed a willingness to play a more simple possession game, and when he did even his occasional longer efforts seemed much more on the mark. As for Kuyt, he survived Adam's early efforts to give him a case of heat stroke to put in an expectedly solid shift in his now familiar right-sided role.
On the left he was mirrored by Maxi, often drifting centrally as Jack Robinson got forward to phenomenal effect to provide width from fullback, while on the other side of defense Andre Wisdom made his senior debut by filling in at right back. While Wisdom didn't always appear entirely comfortable and played a hand in Guangdong's late efforts at a much more flattering scoreline than their overall play warranted, it's hard to look too negatively on him given it's the early days of preseason and all his time at the academy in recent years has been spent in the center. Between the two fullbacks were Kyrgiakos and Agger, the later of whom rather surprisingly came out with the armband despite last season's occasional captain Kuyt being on the pitch. In goal, Jones got 25 minutes before being replaced by Hansen as Dalglish managed to utilise his entire named squad.
Meanwhile up front, Andy Carroll looked as comfortable as in any game last season with Liverpool bar the demolition of Manchester City, first winning an aerial battle to set up Conor Coady's bullet of a debut goal before working a one-two with Maxi to score one of his own, for a time giving liverpool a four-one lead before Guangdong's late fight-back.
All in all, then, some ups and downs but more good than bad for Liverpool. Certainly it was nice to have Kelly back in action after his extended layoff, and to even see Aquilani out on the pitch in a Liverpool shirt again was something many never would have expected. New boy Charlie Adam calmed down quickly enough, too, getting past his early—and rather shaky—efforts to impress to play a largely simple and effective game in the middle. Jack Robinson and Andy Carroll, though, were the clear picks of the second half—and perhaps of the entire match, while on the flip-side about the closest to a genuinely poor performance could be found with Christian Poulsen in the first despite his goal and then Andre Wisdom, who struggled to fill in at fullback, in the second. It also wasn't especially good to see Liverpool completely switch off, up three goals and with the match winding down, allowing Guangdong to nearly drag level in the closing minutes with a pair of goals largely down to Liverpool's own sloppy defending.
Still, in the end of course it's just a friendly. A time for players to get some match fitness and a chance to see a bit of club football again for Liverpool fans after the short summer break. Put that together with a handful of solid outings and a win and it's about the best one can ask for right now, and up next is the Malaysian all-star XI on Saturday, with Emiliano Insua, Glen Johnson, and Raul Meirleles all expected to feature.