Sterling ignites comeback

Posted by Kristian Walsh

Though obvious there are more important things than football after the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel's findings over the disaster, the show must go on. Their refocus back onto the pitch ended in a 1-1 draw with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, leaving Brendan Rodgers still waiting for his first league win as Liverpool manager.

It has been a difficult week for Liverpool, both the city and its famous, decorated football club. The release of the report made for upsetting, uncomfortable reading - not just for the families and survivors of the tragedy, but for football as a whole. The tragedy could have happened to any football fan seeing their team; the incompetence of the authorities on the day, and the subsequent, sickening cover-up from them, could have befallen any set of supporters. The Sunderland fans joined most of the football family in acknowledging that pre-match, applauding Liverpool fans' chants of Justice for the 96.

Once the whistle blew, any pre-match goodwill ceased with the home side booing most touches of the away side, particularly those of Luis Suarez. The only goodwill existed from Liverpool's attack. Once again, their profligate nature in front of goal proved their downfall.

They had been the better side until Steven Fletcher's goal - in fact, Fletcher's strike was the first shot registered by the home side. But as has been customary for the Reds for the past year, chances were spurned. With five minutes gone, Shelvey dragged a shot from 25 yards wide after good work from himself, Gerrard and Suarez to first win the ball in midfield and then break.

Quick counter-attacking football became the staple of Liverpool's advances in the Sunderland half, with Suarez and Sterling both offering outlets out wide. The movement of Liverpool's front three also brought optimism, with Sterling dropping into a deep central position and Italian forward Fabio Borini moving into the unoccupied space out wide.

It was from this inside right position that Borini almost opened the scoring after 18 minutes. His intense pressing and endless running is one of his strengths and it proved so again as he harassed Carlos Cuellar, who struggled to deal with the aerial ball in the penalty box. His header back to Mignolet was short, but Borini only had a split-second to get his shot away. He opted to drill it hard into the Belgian goalkeeper, much like he did with his volley from the edge of the box five minutes later after impressive work from Shelvey and Suarez.

But then Fletcher struck in the 28th minute, just as he has twice before already this season; just like he did 12 times in a struggling Wolves side last season. Good work from Craig Gardner on the right-hand side was complimented with poor defending. He received a lucky bounce off Suarez's legs but the makeshift right-back beat makeshift left-back Glen Johnson far too easily. He fizzed the ball into the six yard box. Reina missed it, allowing Fletcher to get ahead of Skrtel and tap into an empty net. Three shots this season, three goals; what Liverpool would do for a player with that conversion rate.

Sunderland enjoyed themselves after the goal far more, retaining possession and allowing Liverpool to chase the ball. James McClean, Stephane Sessegnon and Sebastian Larsson had all started lethargically, but the goal installed confidence into the trio. What had been a Liverpool-dominated performance had transformed into a confident home showing, typical of a Martin O'Neill side. Dedication supplementing neat and tidy use of the ball.

The second half reverted to type, however, with Liverpool in control and refusing to find the target, though it was bad luck rather than bad finishing that saw Glen Johnson strike the crossbar from 20 yards out with the second half just five minutes old. Getting forward from his left-back position, he turned inside on to his right foot, opened up his body and curled a shot towards goal. Like it has incessantly over the past 18 months, the woodwork denied Liverpool.

Its personal battle with Liverpool was not yet over. Steven Gerrard became the latest to strike woodwork with an hour gone; the post this time the difference. A Sterling ball to the near post was beaten away by the goalkeeper and fell to Shelvey, who calmly laid it off to Gerrard. It was a trademark, low shot with the instep; it was a trademark hitting of the woodwork for Liverpool with Mingolet flat-footed.

Sunderland tried to disrupt Liverpool's play with young midfielder Jack Colback central to that plan. Joe Allen, so graceful and composed in possession, was harried down a number of times; Gerrard, who dropped deeper second half, also found himself having to get himself out of tight situations from the emerging Colback and terrier-like Lee Cattermole. But as the game became congested in midfield, it was another youngster who grabbed the game and dragged it into Liverpool's favour with alacrity.

Stationed on the right hand side, 17-year-old Raheem Sterling began to trouble Danny Rose; his pace and trickery repeatedly leaving the left-back in a tangle. After helping set up the Gerrard chance on 60 minutes, another warning shot was fired nine minutes later, setting up Glen Johnson, who blasted over from outside the box. A minute later, it was third time lucky. A quick stepover sent him past Rose. He drilled the ball near post, but it evaded both Suarez and goalkeeper; such was its ferocity however, Bramble could merely deflect it back into the path of Suarez, who finished smartly, first time, with his left foot. The celebration from Suarez a deserved outpouring of emotion after he had been booked for diving in the first half; replays showed it was harsh, though O'Shea would contest the notion of the penalty.

With Liverpool's first league goal from open play this season scored, a second looked possible - particularly when Jonjo Shelvey drove into the box with 10 minutes remaining. Unfortunately for Liverpool, he fired at the goalkeeper, with Suarez heading over the rebound. On a number of times in the final 10 minutes, good build-up play was scuppered by a poor final ball. Many questions remain for Rodgers, with few answers so far.

Rodgers still awaits his first league win as Liverpool manager, but the most important victory of Liverpool's season was secured on Wednesday - and no one should ever forget that.

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