Evans a blend optimist

The European debate: Liverpool begin to temper their pursuit of purity while Ferguson finds a fresh silver lining
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The Independent Online
OUR thanks are extended, and certainly Liverpool's should be, to Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers for their goalless draw last Monday. After that display of numbing crassness, nothing English football could put on view during the week that followed was going to look all that bad.

Liverpool, though, did their best. Make that their worst. These are potentially England's champions, the purest passers in the domestic game. But in the Cup-Winners' Cup, Europe saw an alarming silhouette of the red legend. Spineless and ponderous, they were pressed - how ironic for an English club - into submission by Paris St-Germain.

Compare and contrast with Juventus in the Champions' Cup the night before. Fluid of movement but rigid of physique and mentality against Ajax, it was Italian incision allied to the toughness once associated with the English. Juve played, too, 4-4-2. Manchester United may possess heart and soul, and could even have embarrassed Dortmund, but this was an away performance on a different plane. The disparity could be seen in the two Frenchmen on view. The reasons were clear why Aime Jacquet believes he does not need Eric Cantona when he has Zinedine Zidane.

Most alarmed among the English will be the Anfield hierarchy. No wonder the Liverpool manager Roy Evans called a "crisis" meeting at the club's Melwood training ground on Friday, less than 12 hours after they had returned to Merseyside. Down at Speke, now it was time to speak up. It may prove to be the day the staff became convinced of the need to alter course, just as Bill Shankly had done after a humbling defeat by Red Star Belgrade in 1973.

The immediate aim is to salvage the championship campaign, which sees Liverpool play Sunderland today and Everton on Wednesday before the title six-pointer against United next Saturday morning. But even if they stay on course domestically, changes in Liverpool's approach and personnel seem certain come season's end. "I think that's for sure," said Evans, pausing stoically to talk - appropriately - in the basement of Parc des Princes. "We did not have enough aggression and we weren't determined enough in tackles. To be successful in Europe you have got to be able to win the ball back."

Is there a downside to Liverpool's current purist ethos? "I think, again, even across the back we are not great ball winners but you want that nice blend of still being able to play football but also being able to get the ball back quickly."

Movement in and out in the summer? "I think that's inevitable," Evans added. "At the end of every season you are looking to improve if the players are available. We will be looking all over."

It seems increasingly certain that Stan Collymore, victim of an abortive damage-limitation exercise on Thursday as Evans replaced him with Michael Thomas in midfield, will be sold, even if Liverpool have to take some loss on their pounds 8.5m investment.

The likeable loner Collymore's talent is unquestioned within the club but management and team-mates are no longer willing to tolerate the frustrations of his training absences.

Liverpool feel they have an excellent young striker in Michael Owen coming through but that may take two seasons. They will therefore probably have to lash out, with Leicester's Emile Heskey thought to be catching their eye - if club and player are ready to part. Liverpool like them young.

It will be mostly a question of rediscovering the spine to match Manchester United's, and from which base Liverpool's passing might then eclipse their rivals. They have long-term confidence in David James despite the worries about the short-term errors, but a more powerful central defender is needed to complement the composure of Mark Wright, assuming, that is, the ageing Wright has another season as good as this one in him. No doubt Evans and his boot room are also discussing the three-at-the-back question.

In midfield, if they do not opt for a more physical player - and a move for the expensive Paul Ince can be ruled out because of a concern about his possible effect on team dynamics - it is possible Jason McAteer could be moved infield from the right. "A lot of our lads can play different positions and that gives us options," Evans said. The need is also for goals from midfield, which is where Patrik Berger might more often come in.

It could mean John Barnes' shelf life is limited. His pace is departing and that is slowing down the team as matches arrive ever faster. Liverpool are unlikely to part with his experience and expertise, however. A coaching position, in keeping with the club's belief in grooming their own managers, may beckon.

From it all, a more virile Liverpool could emerge. Shankly shrewdly identified the need for more patience and possession. Now it has gone to a misguided extreme.

The present crew can be patient to a fault, as the obsession with possession is sometimes exposed in these days of the basketball-like fast break. Liverpool had the ball 54 per cent of the time in Paris.

Gloomy as the week may have started and continued, with the Premiership's standards once again shown to be fleeting when its middle order was beamed live and its higher echelon exposed to the best of Europe, all is not yet lost. Football has a habit of rendering the knee-jerk reaction ridiculous.

United may yet rediscover their vintage Porto form and Robbie Fowler may find one of those short-order hat-tricks to which he has subjected Aston Villa and Arsenal in the past, both of whose defences might be said to be better than PSG's. The French were helped by their old saying jamais deux sans trois in the Parc, but it could yet prove a millstone superstition with St Etienne and Auxerre having seen first-leg leads overhauled at Anfield.

Though statistics tell us 89 per cent of teams have gone through in Europe with a 3-0 lead in the past 10 years, this one, curiously, feels as though it could be salvaged should passion replace patience. They may have to wait for a stronger spine but Liverpool still have the strength of the Spion Kop.