Manchester United and Liverpool’s youngsters fought out a thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw at The Cliff on Saturday, despite the Under-18 Premier League contest taking place in testing wintry conditions.
The game was given the green light following a pitch inspection by the match officials at 9.30am despite The Cliff’s legendary carpet being covered in a swathe of snow. The referee, Michael Crusham, and his assistants, decided that underneath the white stuff there was a perfectly playable surface, so the teams immediately began to ready themselves for the latest academy level clash between two of this country’s greatest clubs.
In the meantime, the lines on the pitch had to be cleared of snow and United's physio Russ Hayes contributed greatly to that process, to such a degree that he could claim to be the club's best sweeper!
Although the surface still looked anything but conducive to good football, both sides made a lively start and there were very few slips and problems with grip underfoot as the game unfolded in front of the hardy souls gathered on the river side of United's famous old training ground.
The hosts were having the lion’s share of the attacking in the opening phase and deservedly took the lead in the 12th minute when D’Mani Mellor latched on to an Aidan Barlow pass and beat Liverpool goalkeeper Vitos Vitelslav with a low shot. The young men in red shirts very nearly added a second goal in the very next minute when George Tanner went close with a header from Barlow’s cross.
It was a positive start from McKenna’s lads and the cause was given another boost in the 27th minute when Liverpool defender Adam Lewis was shown a red card by referee Crusham following a challenge on Tahith Chong.
The pitch was turning increasingly green as the game progressed towards half-time and it was certainly a clear vindication of the referee’s decision to allow the meeting to go ahead. Having said that, the half-time break brought another heavy fall of snow and as the second period commenced, the pitch was returning to its earlier unfamiliar colour.
Six minutes into the second spell, the visitors found a way through the United defence for Liam Millar to claim the equaliser. Worse was to follow nine minutes later when, with the game now taking place under The Cliff’s floodlights, the hosts' backline was breached again by substitute Glen McAuley.
McKenna sent on Millen Baars in the 68th minute and the United sub soon tested his luck with a long shot that just failed to find a way past Vitelslav.
The hosts picked up the tempo in the latter stages in search of a second goal, but Liverpool’s ten men were battling hard to retain their hard-fought lead.
Both Baars and Chong went close as the clock ticked ever faster towards the end, but it appeared that the best chances of the closing stages were going to fall to Liverpool’s Curtis Jones, who fired over from a great position, and Yasser Larouci, who looked certain to score before also failing to do so.
United were staring at defeat as Liverpool coach Steven Gerrard urged his charges to preserve their lead, but as the fourth minute of added time was reached, Jimmy Garner struck a curling low shot that seemed destined to creep inside the far post until Vitelslav got a glove to it. Unfortunately for the visitors' goalkeeper, he only parried to the waiting Spanish youngster Arnau Puigmal, who gleefully guided the ball into the net.
Talk about Christmas coming early, this game had all the trimmings – a wintry scene, excitement and a fair share of thrills for the fans watching at The Cliff and live on MUTV.
United: Fojticek; Tanner, Ercolani (Levitt 81), O’Connor, Laird; Chong, Traore (Baars 68), Garner, Barlow (Puigmal 87); Greenwood; Mellor. Substitutes not used: Carney, B. Williams.