Football: Anfield's empire reduced to ruins

Liverpool's European exit to Celta Vigo was a sign of changing times on Merseyside.
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IT WAS easy to be seduced by the erudite arguments proffered by Gerard Houllier after Liverpool's demise in the Uefa Cup. They were too good for us, he said, and too worldly. Even the crowd, raucously and splendidly supportive at the start, were ready to accept failure.

It was only later that the question "why?" intruded on these resigned, if not only wholly comfortable, thoughts. Yes, Celta Vigo, were far, far better than Liverpool - the 4-1 aggregate was kind on the Merseysiders - but it is an indictment of how standards have free-fallen at Anfield that such a statement should be accepted without rancour. This is a club, after all, which has won four European Cups.

A study of Tuesday's match programme revealed how Celta Vigo's 1-0 win should have been greeted. Only one Spanish team had beaten Liverpool over two legs in Europe, and Athletic Bilbao did so thanks to the toss of a coin in 1968-69; no Spanish team had won at Anfield before; the last European side to defeat Liverpool in both legs was Spartak Moscow in 1992-93.

It should have been a shock but, thanks to the declining expectations at Liverpool and Celta's win over Aston Villa in the previous round, the ground had been prepared. So much for the theory that the Premiership is vying with Italy for the best league in Europe, if not the world.

At least Houllier was not deluded, saying that his side would probably have lost even if Paul Ince, Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp and Vegard Heggem had not been suspended. "All we can take from the game is that we have lots of young players who give us hope for the future.

"But hope doesn't make the present. They were better technically and I am disappointed for the 30,000 fans who were behind us and gave everything."

As Houllier stressed, it is the present that is pressing and that gives little hope for encouragement. True, Liverpool were without the suspended four, but it does not say much for the strength of the squad that so many youngsters had to come into the team.

If Manchester United had lost comparable players, for example Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Denis Irwin, they would still be able to field an all-international midfield. That is the level that Anfield used to, and should, aspire to.

There is even a real danger that Liverpool will not be in Europe next season, because the current plans being contemplated would give England three places in the Champions' League and three in the revamped Uefa Cup. As two of those latter slots will go to the winners of the FA and Worthington Cups, the situation could arrive next May where the lowest team to qualify will be fourth.

Liverpool, ninth in the Premiership with six defeats, would not currently qualify under the old, generous system. It is going to take a sharp upturn in form for them to meet new, probably tighter, criteria.

To be fair to Houllier, he is fully aware of his team's shortcomings and is moving to address them. The most urgent requirement is a centre- back of stature, and Liverpool are anxious to sign Cyril Domoraud from Marseilles for pounds 2m. So anxious, in fact, that they are prepared to let the French Under-21 international stay with his current club until the end of the season - just as long as he puts pen to paper.

Houllier is also considering an offer to take the Cameroon centre-back, Rigobert Song, on trial, while they have been linked in Italian papers with Internazionale's Nigerian defender, Taribo West.

That centre-half problem is easy to see, if not to solve, but the rest of the rebuilding programme will involve difficult decisions.

The first should be an ultimatum to Steve McManaman to either sign a new contract or leave, in the hope that some money can be accrued for a player who can leave for free in the summer. Of course, you cannot compel him to go, but it might provoke some urgency in Barcelona and Real Madrid, who are reported to be interested in signing him.

The second should be the selling of Paul Ince, who is not the force he was and who, at 31, is incapable of lasting 90 minutes on a two-matches- a-week basis. Add a short fuse which cost him his place against Celta Vigo and his assets are being overtaken by his debits.

Take the money - and use it with greater wisdom than Anfield has shown in recent years. Celta are not a rich club and their most expensive signing is Goran Djorovic, who cost pounds 1.25m 18 months ago. That will be a sobering thought for both red and blue persuasions on Merseyside if they win the Uefa Cup this season.

A POWER IN DECLINE: 25 YEARS OF LIVERPOOL TROPHIES

1972-73: Uefa Cup, Football League First Division.

73-74: FA Cup.

74-75: None.

75-76: Uefa Cup, First Division.

76-77: European Cup, European Super Cup, First Division.

77-78: European Cup.

78-79: First Division.

79-80: First Division.

80-81: European Cup, League Cup.

81-82: First Division, League Cup.

82-83: First Division, League Cup.

83-84: European Cup, First Division, League Cup.

84-85: None.

85-86: First Division, FA Cup.

86-87: None.

87-88: First Division.

88-89: FA Cup.

89-90: First Division.

90-91: None.

91-92: FA Cup.

92-93: None.

93-94: None.

94-95: League Cup.

95-96: None.

96-97: None.

97-98: None.

98-99: -

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