Football: Leonhardsen eager to battle as Liverpool go for broke

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The Independent Online
Liverpool play Arsenal tomorrow and Manchester United next Saturday in a make or break week for their title challenge.

Can they change from being infuriatingly fickle to consistent match winners? A fully committed Oyvind Leonhardsen is in no doubt.

So much for the Spice Boys image. The Liverpool players had been given the day off, the weather was dank and uninviting, but Melwood was packed instead of isolated. Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler practised shooting, Jamie Redknapp was alone flicking the ball from foot to foot, creating circles of precision in the misty air.

In the distance two figures shot repeatedly against a wooden wall. One, Bjorn Kvarme, was tall, every inch a professional footballer, but the other had a smaller, almost boyish, physique. He could have been a teenager, his mind seeing Wembley or Anfield instead of darkened timber. Over and over again, left foot, right foot, volley, chip.

Every boy with a shred of football ambition has been there and Oyvind Leonhardsen certainly had. "Just like when I was a kid," he said, smiling at the memory. A Norwegian kid whose television heroes in those days wore the red shirt he now bears. Maybe Kenny Dalglish also drilled against Melwood's wooden walls. Leonhardsen would hope so.

It is a big season for a midfield player whose build and willingness to work reminds the Kop of a latter day left-sided Ray Houghton. It began with a pounds 3.5m move from Wimbledon and will culminate in the World Cup finals, a season that, in League terms, will probably hinge on the next seven days.

Liverpool, the great enigmas of the Premiership, face Arsenal tomorrow at Highbury and Manchester United next Saturday at Anfield knowing that successive defeats will make the runners-up spot and the Champions' League an unlikely carrot never mind the ultimate domestic prize.

No one has a clue whether they will succeed, Roy Evans no more than the rest of us. Brilliant or awful, deadly or profligate, the team slip from one to the other without a join. There have been some glorious performances since Evans became manager in January 1994, but there have been achingly frustrating ones, too, the most stark in the memory being Strasbourg away and Barnsley at home.

The next seven days could undo a lot of the damage in the Premiership and the players know it. Which is why they forsook their day of leisure to go to the training ground at Melwood. Neil Ruddock, Mark Wright, Rob Jones, Jason McAteer all sweating when they could have been in bed. Who says they do not care?

"We do care," Leonhardsen said. "The fact we're here shows everyone is trying. Consistency has been a problem for years now, and if we knew why we'd probably be champions. All you can do is work as hard as you can and try to get it right. It hasn't happened yet but we're training even on our days off to be the best.

"I've been doing ball work, developing skills. Even at 30 years old you can still learn things if you're prepared to try."

Perhaps if Leonhardsen, 27, had been fit at the start of the season, Liverpool would not have made such a lethargic start. Eager, energetic, he was at the vanguard of a Norwegian invasion of the Premiership when he arrived at Wimbledon for pounds 600,000 in December 1994 after helping Rosenborg to a third successive Norwegian title.

For two and-a-half years he personified the Wimbledon craft-with-graft ethos, an uncut jewel among many polished in south London. He is, Joe Kinnear, agrees: "One of the best players I've ever signed."

Rob Jones, Liverpool's right-back, has played with and against him. "He never stops running," he said. "He's a busy player and he's hard to mark because he's here and there, moving all the time. Unless you're careful he'll gets into positions you don't expect and, for a midfielder, he scores a lot of goals. A team need a player who will sit in midfield and another who goes and he does that for us."

Or at least he has since he shook off a hamstring strain - "the longest injury I've ever had" - to make his Premiership debut for the club of his boyhood heart, scoring against Derby on 25 October. Things would be promising if only Liverpool could lose the capacity to shoot themselves in the foot.

"It's always difficult away in Europe, but when we saw Strasbourg at home we couldn't believe we had lost 3-0 to them in France," Leonhardsen said. "We were a bit unlucky that night, but that's easy to say afterwards."

And Barnsley? "We just can't afford to lose at home to teams like them," he replied. "We've made it very difficult for ourselves. If we'd won that match we'd have been right up behind the leaders. We'd have been looking good going into Sunday's match. Now it's hard. Two big games and we need at least four points from them.

"We know we're capable of doing it. You have to be positive. Even against Barnsley we didn't play particularly well but we created a lot of chances. That's the positive side to the game, we could have won. At least we know we are creating enough to score even on bad days. We have to forget that game and look forward to Arsenal."

In other words, his new side are infuriatingly fickle. Coming from the overachievers, Wimbledon, to the underachievers of Anfield, Leonhardsen should be better placed than anyone to put his finger on Liverpool's erratic nature but his answer is a familiar one: pressure.

"The training methods are not very different, but you don't have the pressure at Wimbledon. Each week they stay in the Premiership is an achievement for them. When they are playing big clubs like Liverpool, United or Arsenal they're just happy with every point they can get. It's easier being the underdog.

"Here we know we have to win every game and it's a big difference. If Wimbledon lose three games in a row it's not a crisis, everyone says `yes, that's typical'. At Liverpool people would want to know what's wrong. There's great expectation, it's something you have to live with. It's one of the reasons I came here."

There was also the call of his youth in Kristiansund - the small Norwegian town where Manchester United's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also hails from - and watching Liverpool matches on television. "I always loved English football. It was so fast and exciting and the crowds created a great atmosphere. It's end to end which I thought would suit my style of play."

Wimbledon thought so, too, and now Liverpool, where he has been given a left-flank role rather than the central midfield one he would prefer. "It's my favourite position," he agreed. "Sometimes I feel I could do more there. You can get isolated on the wing and I feel I'd do better if I began my runs from a more central position. My inclination is to cut inside rather than out, but I'm adapting. I feel it's going well. The competition is so strong here I'm happy just to play."

"Leo", as his team-mates call him - his Wimbledon nickname was "Rigsby" - left Melwood to go house hunting. No beers, no carousing, no modelling. Vinny Jones, in his infamous newspaper column once described him as "boring", which in professional football speak means he is admired for his application and ambition.

"It's very special to be with Liverpool," he said, "but I want to win something. I didn't come here just for the sake of it. I believe we can. The season is still young." The next seven days will decide if Liverpool's is going to age prematurely.