Woodwork denies Liverpool again
Liverpool 0 Stoke 0: There is no club quite so much in thrall to its own history as Liverpool and on the final whistle record books were flicked through to ascertain when they had last started a season this badly.
The answer was... two years ago, under Roy Hodgson.
Hodgson was given a little over five months on Merseyside and Brendan Rodgers will expect and probably be allowed years to complete his rebuilding of Liverpool. However, if the Liverpool manager had any doubts that the club’s American owners expect results, he only had to watch the Channel Five documentary in which John W Henry is seen chatting to the Boston Red Sox coach, Bobby Valentine, in the dressing rooms of Fenway Park during the summer. Valentine has just had his contract terminated by the men who also run Anfield.
Thursday night’s 3-2 defeat by Udinese was the first of a series of seven straight matches Liverpool will play on Merseyside which will go a long way to shaping Rodgers’ first season here. This was an afternoon that summed up his first couple of months; Liverpool dominated possession and struck or grazed the frame of the goal four times without ever looking like they were going to win the game or even score.
“The crowd pleased me more than anything. We have won only two home games in the calendar year and it is nearly a year since we last won consecutive league fixtures,” said Rodgers. “To get that kind of constant support really means something.” It was the kind of support Hodgson never really received.
Seeing Stoke wearing the red and blue stripes made famous by Barcelona provided the kind of double-take that would come from seeing Ray Winstone playing Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey. Stoke will be Barcelona only when Catalonia takes an interest in rugby league.
At half-time, one former Liverpool great remarked that had Jimmy Case still been in his pomp, he would have sorted out what he saw as Stoke’s deliberate policy of roughing up Rodgers’ younger players.
The Liverpool manager doubted this was what his opposite number, Tony Pulis, had instructed and, in any event, they came through it well. When Daniel Agger drove the ball across the face of the Stoke goal, Raheem Sterling struck it against the outside of the post. It was the closest Liverpool came to a breakthrough – Agger, Luis Suarez and Martin Skrtel all technically hit the post but this was the only one that seemed likely to finish in the net.
“There was a challenge in the first half when Glen Johnson and Jon Walters went up for a header,” said Pulis, responding to charges of over-physicality. “It was a real, full-blooded challenge and I thought Glen did absolutely fantastically to bounce back up and get on with it.
“I went over to him and said ‘well done’, although I think the crowd thought I was having a go at him, but his behaviour was first class. Then, you have Suarez falling over in the box. That was really, really disappointing and should be highlighted.
“Retrospective decisions are made on a Monday and Suarez should be punished. The dive in the penalty area was an embarrassment. How he wasn’t booked, I don’t know.”
The Uruguayan had worked tirelessly but his dive would not have fooled a five-year-old. He had slipped under pressure and then thrown himself to the ground. It was laughable and until this issue is addressed Suarez, who was fouled relentlessly, will be looked at with disbelief every time he appeals to a referee. In the second half, he had a reasonable appeal for a penalty when pushed in the back by Robert Huth, who was one of six Stoke players to be booked. It was ignored.
So, too, was Stewart Downing, although Rodgers denied his omission had anything to do with Downing’s comments that he had had plenty of conversations with his manager as to why he was not being played. Rodgers’ own comment that players at Liverpool “who do not put their bodies on the line stand out like a sore thumb” was generally thought to refer to the winger. Downing had played well against Udinese but the defeat had been condemned by Rodgers as “lazy” and “sloppy” and, during the opening exchanges against Stoke, lazy and sloppy were what Liverpool were.
First, Nuri Sahin passed straight to Charlie Adam, who might have scored had Pepe Reina not blocked his shot. Then the Liverpool keeper gave the ball straight to Steven N’Zonzi, who set up Michael Kightly for a beautifully aimed chip that would have been the day’s only goal had Reina not spectacularly atoned for his error by tipping the shot into the Kop.
It was only when Steven Gerrard delivered a fabulous drive that was pushed away at full stretch by Asmir Begovic that Liverpool began to settle and control the match.
It would have been fascinating to have seen Michael Owen at Anfield against the club to which he had contributed so much. Owen, however, on a day when all the teams he has played for were in action – Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle, Manchester United and Stoke – was unable to play because of a groin strain. You would have to be very cynical to point out that one of the highlights of the sport Owen is accused of preferring to football, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, was on television.