Liverpool grind to a complacent halt

Football: Liverpool 0 Sunderland 0
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The Independent Online
Funny thing, the break between football seasons. Lions in May become donkeys in August and some players bear no resemblance to the error-strewn wreck of four months previously. Teams can be transformed by the simple remedy of rest and recuperation. Then again, some sides carry on exactly where they left off.

Liverpool, for example. If you had to nominate an outfit with the lowest achievement-against-talent ratio last year then Roy Evans's team would have been right up there. And how do we find them a week into the new season? Frustrating to the point where you wonder whether the manager's thick head of hair is a wig, so tempting must it be for him to tear his locks out.

With a touch of the ruthless about them - a quality they had in spades when the likes of Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish were in the team - Liverpool would be sitting on top of the Premiership with nine points. Instead they are unbeaten but showing the same wantonness with their gifts that undermined them last spring.

In the programme, Evans had spelt out what irked him most. "The irritation I find," he wrote "is lessons not being learned and mistakes being repeated." Well, replace Sunderland with Coventry and Southampton of last season and you realise that a lot of Anfield tuition is going in one ear and out the other while pausing only to linger in the brain for micro-seconds.

Beforehand, a Liverpool supporter had said it had been a good job that Sunderland had won well in midweek, otherwise complacency, a not altogether strange companion of the red shirts, might have made an appearance on the substitutes' bench. On this evidence, a 10-0 thrashing of the European champions Juventus would not have been enough warning.

Newly promoted Sunderland were hungrier, went into tackles with an urgency that was alien to their opponents and might even have secured a win. True, they did not set out with the intention of thrilling Anfield with their enterprise, but they still created the two best chances of the match.

"We're not getting carried away," Peter Reid, their manager, said. "But I don't think we have looked out of depth in the Premier League so far."

They certainly did not on Saturday. Reid's chief tactical ploy was to man-mark Steve McManaman with Kevin Ball. The England winger escaped this bond fleetingly, but without a consistent supply of runs and passes from him, Liverpool's play ground to a halt. Indeed, for all their possession, only once did they look like scoring, when an otherwise anonymous John Barnes hit the bar with a header from Stig Inge Bjornebye's 66th-minute corner. At the other end, Niall Quinn twice had chances thanks to slips by Dominic Matteo and Liverpool were only saved by the reflexes of their goalkeeper David James.

"Teams are going to come to Anfield and defend," Evans said, "and we have to cope with it better than we did today. The movement was average to say the least. . . As an attacking unit we were very poor."

With the massed ranks of European defences looming, the lessons need to be heeded quickly. Or else Evans is liable to lose his sangfroid completely. "I'm not exactly over the moon," he said darkly. "Of course I'm annoyed."

Nothing new there then.

Liverpool (5-3-2): James; McAteer, Wright, Matteo, Babb (Thompson, 84), Bjornebye; McManaman, Thomas, Barnes; Collymore, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), Ruddock, Carragher, L Jones.

Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Coton; Kubicki, Melville, Ord, Scott; Ball; Agnew (Bridges, 84), Bracewell, Stewart, Gray; Quinn. Substitutes not used: Russell, Hall, Aiston, Perez (gk).

Bookings: Liverpool: McAteer, Bjornebye, Thompson. Sunderland: Melville, Ord, Stewart.

Referee: M Bodenham (East Looe).

Man of the match: Stewart.

Attendance: 40,503.