Mid-January, no games in hand, four points behind Charlton. A point at Wolves, and the performance to suit, was in fact rather typical of our season so far. Glimpses of excellence, a touch unlucky, lack of dynamism, lack of consistency, going through the motions, not imposing ourselves, underachieving. Rather like the two clubs' respective sponsors, this was the bog-standard, no-nonsense 'pint of lager and a packet of crisps' performance.
The trip down seemed straightforward enough, by car or train, and Molineux is not one of those new out-of-town stadiums in the middle of nowhere that all look the same (Riverside, Pride Park etc). Its close enough to the town for a good choice of alehouses and eateries, and their fans are nothing like the wankers their near blue neighbours are. All in all, Wolves is a welcome addition to the away fixture list. Shame its only for one season.
There was a sense of guarded optimism before kick-off. The two best full-backs at the club, Finnan and Carragher, made welcome returns in place of the less-than-excellent full-back pairing of Henchoz and Traore, with Henchoz unlucky not to be restored in the middle in place of Biscan. Skipper Steven Gerrard came back into the midfield to replace Murphy after a brief (but all too long) injury absence, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Dudek was back sooner than expected to replace Wales' Number One in goal. Against what was close to our full-strength team, surely Wolves couldn't repeat their surprise - and welcome - heroics of a few days previous?
Wolves had been generous in their ticket allocation, giving us an entire half of their biggest stand. However, perhaps due to the 'shape' of the allocation (a 'Paddock'-style lower section along the length of the pitch), songs only really got going in pockets. The Wolves fans, although at times impressively loud, were depressingly Nationwide, with predictable songs about stereos, Pinnochio, the Social and the Champion's League, interspersed with embarrasingly over-entusiastic renditions of 'Barmy Army'. A loud pre-kick-off change of song lyric from 'Silver Lining' to 'Wolverhampton' certainly raised an ironic smile with me.
Wolves started the very early stages brightly, but the Redmen soon began to come into it with some nice touches. Early on, Carra and Finnan looked comfortable, and with Hamann and Gerrard reunited we seemed solid enough. Heskey and Cheyrou were lying deeper, leaving Owen as the point of attack. Owen is still clearly finding his way back, with a couple of second half incidents being chances he would normally snap up, one where he wasn't sharp enough to control and beat the keeper when everyone around him had stopped, and another when almost through and he ended up running down a dead end, when a more confident Owen would have taken it onto his other foot. Still, he did look fairly lively at times; on a couple of occasions when through balls found his friendly feet he beat his man with a Waltz, a Foxtrot, a Rumba, and probably a Macarena, sadly without sufficinent end product.
Most of the first-half play was in the Wolves half, and a couple of minutes before half time the reward came, when Finnan, under pressure, found Cheyrou's run with a long ball from wide, Cheyrou controling it well (almost, but not quite, with his hand) and beautifully knocked it past Oakes in the Wolves goal into the far side. Though he wasn't as involved as perhaps we'd like in much of the rest of the play, a goo run in the side in Diouf's absence may well give him the chance to show us what we'd all hoped he'd deliver when signing last season. He's clearly skillful enough; the goal should give him at least the opportunity to show he is good enough for this club.
Liverpool started the second half like on so many other occasions when leading by a goal, ie by sitting back and spending most of their time in their own half. The uncomfortable Biscan was replaced with Henchoz at the break - despite some moments of promise and undoubted cult-hero status, it would be surprising if he kept a regular starting place in this team much longer. Despite a few scary moments, most notably when the woeful Iversen dinked over the bar from a few yads out when he had half an empty goal to aim at, Liverpool stood firm, and as the latter stages approached, with Murphy replacing Cheyrou, began to take more control. Chances fell to Owen, Kewell with a volley, and Murphy, who hit the post when really he should have scored.
However, with those chances spurned, Wolves roused themselves with a late rally. Unmarked Wolves players at corners should have served as a warning; we were going to have to get tighter. A high, wide and ugly shot from the high, wide and ugly Ince (who had moments earlier tried to win a penalty, drawing an angry response from Gerrard) was incorrectly rewarded with a 90th minute corner, and though that was played out, the ball came back in to the edge of the box, was ficked on, and found Wolves danger man Kenny Miller in too much space, who knocked it sweetly beyond Dudek, re-writing countless headlines concerning 'Bruno's Knockout Blow'. The equaliser came too late for a winner from either side, although there was time enough for another dirty Ince challenge. Two cup finals in four days for him was clearly too much to handle.
The result lifts Liverpool above Newcastle into fifth, but if truth be told while pint-of-lager performances may well end up securing us fourth, the difference is a chasm between that and the fine French Cognac at Arsenal, the Blue Russian at Chelsea and the Champagne Charlies (with apologies to Rio) down the East Lancs Road. The Newcastle cup game on Saturday is looking huge for the chance of some temporary hope and redemption.
Man of the Match: Steven Gerrard Sod what the government says, human cloning can't come soon enough to get more of this man's drive and commitment on the pitch.