This should have been first blood to the Blades. Back in the Premiership after a 12-year absence, Sheffield United were deservedly leading Liverpool and looking capable of hanging on to their advantage, until a generously awarded 68th-minute penalty allowed the visitors to escape with a face-saving point.
Steven Gerrard, once again performing his one-man rescue act, played a one-two with Robbie Fowler and accelerated into the area, losing his balance in vaulting Chris Morgan's rash tackle and falling to the floor as Paddy Kenny collected what turned out to be a tame shot.
That's what most people in the stadium saw in any case. Referee Rob Styles saw it differently and after waiting until Kenny had made the save blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. 'He's given advantage and then he's given a penalty,' Neil Warnock complained. 'I don't think it was a foul anyway.'
The United manager's feelings were strengthened by television replays showing negligible contact between Morgan and Gerrard, although as the United captain was nowhere near the ball either it seemed reasonable to give the attacker the benefit of the doubt. Morgan had at least put Gerrard off his shot by obliging him to take evasive action, though the trouble with that interpretation is that a red card should have followed for the illegal denial of a goalscoring opportunity by the last defender. Even a yellow would have ended Morgan's participation, as the defender had already been booked, but the cards stayed in Styles' pocket as the otherwise ineffective Fowler stroked home the penalty.
The ensuing debate was so protracted that Styles felt the need to explain himself. 'I thought there was contact,' he said. 'Only slight contact perhaps, but Gerrard lost the opportunity to score a goal and I am allowed to wait and see whether an advantage accrues before blowing the whistle.'
So he is, but as Warnock said, if he thought he saw contact Morgan should have been off. 'I intend to ask him about that,' the United manager said. 'He's bound to have an answer, referees always do, but he might not have thought it up yet.'
Warnock implored everyone not to let the penalty controversy overshadow a spirited performance that bodes well for their Premiership future, though when partisan views are put aside there was little else of note in a scrappy and otherwise uneventful game.
Liverpool would certainly rather talk about the penalty than the rest of their disjointed performance, though there were reasons for what Rafa Benitez admitted was a poor first half. John Arne Riise, less than a week after scoring that spectacular goal in Cardiff, lasted just over 20 minutes before twisting his ankle in a challenge with Paul Ifill. Shortly afterwards he was followed by Jamie Carragher, Liverpool's most committed defender, who had been struggling with an ankle injury since colliding with Rob Hulse. Both are doubtful for Liverpool's Champions League trip to Kiev in midweek, and though Riise's injury looked more serious Benitez is more concerned at the length of Carragher's absence.
Hastily reorganising with Fabio Aurelio moved back to full-back and Daniel Agger replacing Carragher at centre-half, Liverpool shored up their defence at the expense of their midfield. Already missing Xabi Alonso, Benitez bizarrely deployed Gerrard on the right wing and Bolo Zenden in the middle, with the result that there was almost no service to Fowler and Craig Bellamy up front.
Liverpool's best chance before half time came from an Aurelio free-kick that Kenny clawed out from under his crossbar, while a Hulse goal for the home side was correctly ruled offside after Chris Armstrong and Danny Webber had made inroads down the visitors' right flank.
The game perked up as soon as the second half started, with debutant Hulse, a £2million buy from Leeds, putting United ahead with an unchallenged header from the six-yard line. United cleverly dummied Liverpool into taking a step out before David Unsworth's floated free-kick to the far post, but even so there was no excuse for Sami Hyypia and Agger failing to pick up their opposing centre forward. They seemed to leave him to Aurelio, who had enough on his plate adjusting from wing to left-back.
Liverpool's reply consisted of a couple of Craig Bellamy efforts that Kenny saved comfortably, and giving Gerrard the licence to roam, which ultimately brought the equaliser. 'If you want to talk about the penalty you must also talk about all the fouls against us,' a testy Benitez declared. 'For me it was very clear. It was a penalty and it was a red card.'
It was a warm welcome back to the Blades too. The attendance of nearly 32,000 was remarkable considering the number of roads around the ground the police had closed, but everyone enjoys a Saturday afternoon in Sheffield.
'It's not been a bed of roses, but I'm sure the roller coaster ride will continue,' said Warnock, never a man to worry about mixing his cliches. 'We just need to get the rub of the greens.' If that conjures up an image of cabbage-fondling, no one will mind. As the fans sing, Sheffield United fill up your senses like a greasy chip butty.
Opposition line-up: Paddy Kenny, Chris Armstrong, Leigh Bromby (Mikele Leigertwood), Derek Geary, Chris Morgan, David Unsworth, Paul Ifill (Keith Gillespie), Phil Jagielka, Michael Tonge, Rob Hulse (Ade Akinbiyi), Danny Webber.
Referee: Rob Styles.
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