Football: Boateng uses his head

Coventry 2 Boateng 60, Whelan 71 Liverpool 1 McManaman 86 Half- time: 0-0 Attendance: 23,056
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AFTER a sterile first half, the photographers at Highfield Road needed little persuasion to turn their cameras towards Glenn Hoddle in the directors' box as the England coach took his seat after his half-time tea. Hoddle, embroiled in more controversy after his remarks about reincarnation and the handicapped, had apparently come to watch Coventry's Darren Huckerby.

In the event, the flying Englishman was upstaged by a Dutchman. George Boateng, an under-21 international signed by Gordon Strachan for an implausible pounds 250,000 just over a year ago, scored Coventry's first goal with a diving header and set up Noel Whelan for a second. This in effect killed off a disappointing Liverpool for whom Steve McManaman, making a second-half appearance from the substitutes' bench after announcing his decision to join Real Madrid, grabbed a late reply.

On a surface unsuited to Liverpool's passing movements, Coventry signalled their intention to dictate the pace by forcing six corners in the first 12 minutes. They exposed Gerard Houllier's new signing, Rigobert Song, to an early experience of Premiership football at its most frenzied.

The Cameroon defender, who received international clearance only on Friday evening after his pounds 2.5m transfer from Salernitana of Italy, had to set off in pursuit of the pacey Huckerby within 30 seconds of the kick-off but was not found wanting. Indeed, he passed each one of several tests posed by the home side, even managing a goal-line clearance from Huckerby.

But Song's assured and dynamic performance, marred only by a second-half yellow card, was one of few redeeming points on a flat afternoon for Liverpool. They were perhaps more affected by last weekend's FA Cup defeat at Old Trafford than anyone had expected. Far from bouncing back to Premiership action full of renewed vigour, they never looked likely to extend a five- match unbeaten run.

It was 20 minutes before Liverpool managed an attempt on goal, Patrik Berger spraying the ball well wide from a position on the left. Only late in the match could Robbie Fowler or Michael Owen make an impression and Houllier must have been wondering about deploying McManaman, who had played only once in four months through injury, long before he did.

Inevitably, Coventry could not sustain the energy of their opening thrusts but were closest, none the less, to taking a first-half lead. First Gary McAllister missed the target narrowly with a dipping free-kick from 25 yards, and then Whelan had a score ruled out for offside after Boateng had climbed at the far post to head a cross into his path.

At last, with the introduction of Gary Breen in place of an injured Roland Nilsson on the right of Coventry's defence, Liverpool found an avenue that Owen could explore. As Berger and Paul Ince combined to carve a way through the Coventry rearguard, Owen overlapped and clipped the top of the crossbar with a curling right-foot shot, which had Magnus Hedman beaten.

But when the goal came, it was at the other end, giving Coventry an advantage that had seemed likely to elude them. Receiving the ball from Whelan's throw on the left, Stephen Froggatt delivered an early cross and his intentions were read superbly by Boateng, who sprinted into the target area before launching a diving header that skimmed past David James into the net.

Liverpool's reaction was to take off Song, who had needed treatment after falling heavily, and bring on McManaman. But before the England player could influence the match Coventry had extended their lead.

This time Boateng turned supplier, cleverly lobbing the ball into the path of Whelan on the left. The Coventry striker's first touch looked too heavy but the ball was held up by the sticky surface and his next contact chipped it over the advancing James.

The second goal seemed to end Liverpool's hopes but a close-range goal with four minutes left by McManaman, a spare man as Owen drove the ball across the six-yard box, ensured a tense finale for Gordon Strachan and the home bench.