SHEFFIELD: Teenage midfielder Michael Tonge scored twice in a late six-minute spell to give First Division Sheffield United a 2-1 victory over Liverpool in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final on Wednesday.
Liverpool appeared to be cruising to victory thanks to a first-half header by 20-year-old striker Neil Mellor and, with the home leg to come, the Premier League side looked odds-on to reach the final on March 3 in Cardiff.
But 19-year-old Tonge struck in the 76th and 82nd minutes to turn the tie around and give his side a real chance of reaching their first major final since 1936 when they appeared in the last of their six FA Cup finals.
Finals are regular fare for Liverpool, who have won the League Cup a record six times, including two years ago in what became a Cup treble, and they looked on course for another final appearance after totally dominating from the start.
They had a couple of half chances when Mellor shot wide and Finnish centre back Sami Hyypia headed over from a corner.
But the two men combined in the 35th minute to break the deadlock, Hyypia flicking on a Danny Murphy free kick and 20-year-old Mellor nipping it to head the ball home for his first senior goal.
It was fair reward for Liverpool’s dominance of the first 45 minutes as the home side were unable to show any of the form that knocked out Leeds United and Sunderland earlier in the competition and which has taken them to third place in the First Division.
Liverpool continued to look the most likely and El Hadji Diouf forced a sharp save from Patrick Kenny after 65 minutes.
United finally gave their fans a moment of hope in the 72nd minute when Peter Ndlovu and Wayne Allison forced Chris Kirkland into action.
The chances lifted the team and, four minutes later, they equalised when 38-year-old Stuart McCall fed Tonge, half his age, who shot low past Kirkland for his first goal since October.
Incredibly, United went ahead in the 82nd minute when Tonge showed great composure to side-step a tackle before lashing a superb shot beyond Kirkland from the edge of the box after Liverpool had failed to clear a corner.
Though Liverpool’s goal could still prove vital – the away goals rule comes into operation if the tie is level after extra time in the second leg – United travel for the Anfield return on Jan 21 with some hope.
“Nobody can be confident going to Anfield but it has given the fans a good couple of weeks,” United manager Neil Warnock told Sky Sports TV.
“I thought it was very tight but we showed tremendous character and a lot of commitment.”
Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier thought the home side had taken that commitment a little too far, particularly Michael Brown, who was lucky to escape with just a booking for a late challenge on Kirkland.
“I am a lit bit disappointed, there were a few things I didn’t like about the game,” said the Frenchman.
“We were expecting a physical challenge but it was more than that at times. I’m pleased he (Kirkland) has not got his leg broken.”
Houllier, whose team have gone 10 league games without a win, was unconcerned to be trailing, pointing out that the side lost the first-leg by the same score to Crystal Palace two years ago and won the return 5-0. – Reuters