Evans struggles with Collymore quandary

FOOTBALL: Liverpool's failure to score goals despite a talented attack may be an insuperable handicap in their pursuit of honours
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Various phrases became associated with Liverpool in the years of plenty. Among them were the dictum "the secret of success is to win when playing badly", and the complaint "if we lose two matches on the trot everyone calls it a crisis".

Recently the first maxim has been reversed: Liverpool are losing when playing well. In each of the last five matches they have played well, if not for the whole match. At Middlesbrough on Saturday they were terrible in the first half, but excellent in the second. They lost 2-1. In the last five games they have taken one Premiership point from 12 and gone out of Europe. For once, talk of a crisis is accurate.

It is not that Liverpool are going to get relegated. The situation is not that critical. But, with Newcastle, the other pre-season favourites, 14 points ahead and disappearing over the Premiership horizon, neither are they likely to win the title.

The reason is not difficult to fathom. While the defence can be shaky, a team with the best young goalscorer, the best veteran goalscorer, and the most expensive goalscorer in the country is not scoring goals. In those last five games they have managed three.

Ian Rush is partially exonerated. He is injured and has missed the last three games. Although he managed only four goals beforehand he did prove a good partner for Robbie Fowler. Fowler himself is partially excused: he has scored 13 goals this season. Stan Collymore? Guilty as charged.

Collymore has scored twice this season, most recently on 16 September, a poor return even given his irregular appearances. He never looked like scoring on Saturday.

This is not entirely his fault. As Collymore contentiously suggested earlier this month, Liverpool do not seem to have given any thought to how he was to fit into their system.

Collymore likes space and possession. At Nottingham Forest most attacks were directed to, or through him. They were primarily counter-attacks, which gave him room to run at defences. Liverpool move forward like a royal procession, graceful, but hardly urgent. Collymore is thus starved of possession, then given it when he is cramped for space and his relatively poor first touch is exposed.

However, the player himself does not help matters. Liverpool expect their players to work hard for the team. For forwards this does not just involve running off the ball: Rush has been harrying defenders for 15 years. When Fowler first came into the team Rush's work-rate made the youngster appear a lazy goalhanger.

No longer. His changed attitude was encapsulated in one incident on Saturday after Juninho had broken down the right wing. Three Liverpool players surrounded the Brazilian before one took the ball off him near the byline. The tackler was Fowler.

Collymore also likes to wander, but Liverpool already have one loose cannon in Steve McManaman. He, at least, has learned to look for the pass while heading for goal.

Which leaves Roy Evans looking like the man who has discovered his bold new Ikea sofa does not match his pretty-pattern Laura Ashley fittings. Does the Liverpool manager try to blend the two, or cut his losses? Players have been sold within months of purchase before, especially strikers. Remember Clive Allen at Arsenal?

One suspects Evans will try to integrate Collymore. Players of his quality are rarely available. But as a person Collymore appears to react better to security than having to fight for his place. That, however, is what he is likely to have to do for some time.

Middlesbrough's new signings, Nick Barmby and Juninho, have gelled better, although the Brazilian is still settling in. Before the game he said his team-mates were learning to pass to his feet. That was not always apparent and it was infuriating to see him constantly run towards a player, arms out, beseeching the pass, only for his team-mate to hit the ball long over his head towards Jan-Age Fjortoft.

However, Juninho received more than enough of the ball in the first half for Liverpool's liking. They were tormented by his interchanging with the effervescent Barmby and should have been finished by the interval. "No one has opened us up like that this season," Evans said.

Yet Middlesbrough scored only once before half-time, after 90 seconds. Juninho's jinking and Fjortoft's optimistic deflected shot created an opening for Barmby. He drew David James then coolly pulled the ball back for Neil Cox. James then kept Liverpool in contention, aided by Dermot Gallagher's leniency. The referee allowed Phil Babb to remain on the field after he had crudely clattered into Juninho after 26 minutes.

Gallagher evened things up 11 minutes after the break when Gary Walsh handled outside the box as Liverpool took over the game. Both players could, indeed should, have gone under present interpretations of the rules. While Gallagher's reprieves smacked of common sense, they also illustrated the inconsistency managers bemoan.

Liverpool did equalise, 16 minutes later, Neil Ruddock heading in Jason McAteer's cross. But, within a minute, Barmby had volleyed in Cox's cross.

Liverpool, with McAteer driving them forward, then beseiged Boro in vain. McManaman scorned a clear chance but, that apart, Boro held firm, with Nigel Pearson outstanding in an impressive back three. It was not hard to see why they have the best defensive record in the Premiership.

Liverpool, who looked understandably short of confidence in the first half, now meet Newcastle in the Coca-Cola Cup on Wednesday. A third successive home defeat, after Brondby and Everton, and they will have only the FA Cup to chase from a season that promised so much.

Goals: 1-0 Cox (27); 1-1 Ruddock (72); 2-1 Barmby (73).

Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Walsh; Pearson, Vickers, Liddle; Cox, Stamp, Pollock, Juninho, Morris; Barmby, Fjortoft. Substitutes not used: Hendrie, Moore, Moreno.

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Wright, Ruddock, Babb; Jones (Thomas, 77), McManaman, McAteer, Barnes, Harkness; Fowler, Collymore. Substitutes not used: Warner, Kennedy.

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).