Battling Blades Frustrate Reds
Report of match Sheffield United 2 Liverpool 1 played 8th January 2003
The Worthington Cup Semi-Final got off to a flyer as The Red & White Wizards faced FA Barclaycard Premiership opposition in Liverpool, however it was United who won 2-1 thanks to two goals from Reds target Michael Tonge.
Liverpool-target Michael Tonge upstaged fellow youngster Neil Mellor to leave Sheffield United on the brink of the Worthington Cup final.
Reds boss Gerard Houllier has been a long-time admirer of the 19-year-old, and it was easy to see why with Tonge scoring a stunning late second-half brace as United came from behind to snatch the first-leg advantage of this semi final at Bramall Lane.
On the strength of this performance, Houllier is now likely to pursue Tonge with a vengeance during the summer, although the teenager has almost certainly doubled his £5 million price tag.
Blades manager Neil Warnock will also be in a position to ward off any potential move for Tonge from Houllier courtesy of this competition, which has so far netted the club £1.4million.
The much-needed money has ensured Warnock does not to have to sell any of his top young stars to ease United's debts, as has often been the case in the club's past.
Tonge is the hottest of the Blades' prospects, with his two goals in the space of six minutes piling the agony on Houllier and a Liverpool team who had previously taken solace in the cup competitions this season to ease their Barclaycard Premiership woes.
Warnock only stated this week he would not be surprised to see Liverpool winning a cup treble again, just as they did two years ago when they lifted the Worthington, FA and UEFA Cup.
But Tonge has thrown such hopes into disarray, with United just 90 minutes from a March 2 date at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium - although they first have to negotiate the return leg at Anfield in 13 days' time.
Yet again, though, as on many occasions with United, there w
as no sign of the late rally on the cards as Liverpool held the upper hand without looking dominating.
Neil Mellor (son of a ex-piggy) had already spurned a superb opportunity to open his Liverpool account after 10 minutes as a swift Liverpool counter-attack led to El Hadji Diouf finding himself in space deep inside United's six-yard box.
With goalkeeper Paddy Kenny approaching to close down the angle, Senegal international Diouf slipped a pass inside to Mellor, only for a six-yard stab to finish the wrong side of the right-hand post as United midfielder Stuart McCall did just enough to distract the young forward.
But Mellor, making only his third start and fourth appearance for Liverpool, was eager to make the most of this latest chance with Michael Owen and Emile Heskey on the bench.
Gerard Houllier had decided not to take a chance with his England international frontline as Owen had missed the last two matches with a hamstring injury, while Heskey had been struggling with an ankle problem in the build-up to the game.
Mellor did not have to wait long for his second bite of the cherry, with Vladimir Smicer bundled to the ground by Wayne Quinn, the left-back joining United on loan from Newcastle this week two years after being sold to the Magpies by Warnock for £800,000.
Danny Murphy, a fine free-kick exponent, picked out the imposing figure of captain Sami Hyypia for a flick to the far post where Mellor comfortably headed in from point-blank range.
Perhaps it was ordained Mellor should score, for his father Ian played for United's bitter rivals Wednesday for three years from 1979 to 1982, scoring 11 goals in his 80 appearances.
The opportunities which came United's way either side of that - prior to Tonge's intervention - were far too fleeting, primarily because the imposing presence of Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz had far too much pace for Wayne Allison and Carl Asaba to cope with.
Veteran 34-year-old Allison had been called up with Steve Kabba cup tied, while Asaba had shaken off a calf injury to retain his place in the side.
The duo combined for United's best opportunity of the opening 70 minutes, with Allison touching on a low Michael Brown right-wing cross for Asaba, but his 18-yard shot was ballooned over the bar.
Just before, though, Brown was perhaps lucky not to have been sent off after catching Kirkland on his shin with a desperately late lunge which left the keeper requiring lengthy treatment.
Ironically, it was after Mellor's departure for Owen in the 70th minute which United then found a new lease of life, with Peter Ndlovu and Wayne Allison within a whisker of the equaliser.
Then in the 76th minute, Tonge turned on a pass from Stuart McCall before nut megging Chris Kirkland with a left-foot shot from 15 yards to the delight of the Blades' fans among the 30,000 crowd.
It was pandemonium six minutes later when Tonge cracked home an even more impressive effort with his right foot from 19 yards.
A Blades in swinging corner taken by Quinn was cleared by the Pool defence and fell to McCall who passed to Tonge on 18 yard box. He sold Hyppia a dummy before firing a shot past keeper Chris Kirkland to send the United fans into a frenzy and win the game.
Full-Time: Sheffield United 3-1 Liverpool
Man of the Match: Wayne Allison
|Competition: Worthington League Cup Date: Wednesday, 8th January 2003 Kick off: 20:00 Venue: Bramall Lane|
Tonge 76, 82
|2 - 1||Liverpool
|Carl Asaba (Montgomery 51)||6|
|4||Nick Montgomery (Asaba 51)||6|
|Wilco de Vogt|
|11||Vladimir Smicer (Heskey 57)||6|
|33||Neil Mellor (Owen 71)||7|
|18||Emile Heskey (Smicer 57)||6|
|10||Michael Owen (Mellor 71)|
|3||John Arne Riise|
|Sheff. Utd. cards shown|
|31 mins||Michael Tonge||Unsporting behaviour|
|38 mins||Carl Asaba||Unsporting behaviour|
|69 mins||Michael Brown||Unsporting behaviour|
|Liverpool cards shown|
|25 mins||Salif Diao||Unsporting behaviour|
|42 mins||Djimi Traore||Unsporting behaviour|
|55 mins||El-Hadji Diouf||Unsporting behaviour|
|63 mins||Stephane Henchoz||Unsporting behaviour|