Football: Charlton exploit defence's soft centre

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Liverpool 3 Charlton Athletic 3

NEVER MIND sex and lies in Washington DC - Liverpool should be required to squirm through a video scandal of their own today. So flawed was their defence against Charlton that the tape ought to be buried in a time-capsule beneath the Kop to show future generations how not to do it. And to think that their next match is at Manchester United.

One half of Anfield's managerial duo, Gerard Houllier, sounded like a presidential aide when he tried to pass it off as "one of those days". Another one against Messrs Yorke, Giggs and Beckham on Thursday and the ill-starred alliance of Phil Babb and Jamie Carragher at the heart of Liverpool's back four may not be the only partnership under pressure.

Houllier and Roy Evans stated when their peculiar arrangement began during the summer that they were looking for a commanding figure to marshall their defence. Hardly a vote of confidence for the existing personnel, but two goals conceded in the first four games suggested the problem might have been exaggerated.

After seeing Babb and Carragher repeatedly embarrassed by a team fresh from the First Division, a week after a chastening experience at West Ham, Evans was forced to admit that the search was ongoing. "But if the players aren't out there," he sighed, "you can't sign them."

Liverpool were unlucky to lose Mark Wright, who had to retire. Hindsight has vindicated the decision to sell the injury-prone John Scales. Saturday's shortcomings were so basic, however, that offloading Neil Ruddock began to seem hasty. At least he was dominant in the air, scarcely his successors' strongest suit.

The only mitigation for either was Paul Ince's absence. He shields the back four from players running at them in a way which only Arsenal's French midfielders can rival and Steve Harkness could not duplicate. But even the most exposed defenders should be able to complete elementary clearances.

Ironically, the player who gave them a lesson in unfussy, effective protection of the keeper was as local as the Liver bird. Eddie Youds came through the ranks at Everton until, finding his progress blocked by Dave Watson and Kevin Ratcliffe, he joined Ipswich and then Bradford. Charlton paid pounds 550,000 for him in March.

Youds is a journeyman, burly enough to scrum down for Warrington or Widnes. Yet where Babb dithered, he was decisive; where Carragher drifted, betraying his midfield origins, he held his position. Apart from Robbie Fowler, who scored twice in an otherwise low-key return, he was the only Scouser present to take anything positive from the afternoon.

The Charlton camp were not happy either. Who would have believed it? They score three and take a point at one of the super-powers, Clive Mendonca displaces Michael Owen in the Premiership scoring chart and their fans silence the Kop with a song by a Beatle; yet still they leave disappointed.

That strangest of anthems, McCartney's "Mull of Kintyre", was still ringing out after Richard Rufus' headed opener when the same player was dubiously adjudged to have felled Owen. Fowler levelled from the spot only for Mendonca to restore the visitors' advantage after Danny Mills' acceleration had highlighted Steve Staunton's unease at left-back.

Almost immediately, it would have been 3-1 but for pedantic refereeing. Instead of waiting to see whether Charlton gained any advantage after Andy Hunt raced clear to "score", Paul Alcock penalised Carragher's late foul on John Robinson. It was soon 2-2 thanks to Patrik Berger's thunderbolt, and Charlton faced a travesty when Fowler scrambled a soft third.

The hapless Babb, misdirecting a header, allowed Steve Jones to ensure a fairer outcome. Having led for only 90 seconds over the 90 minutes, Liverpool could hardly have complained had Mendonca not wasted a free header two minutes from time.

Still, Charlton can be satisfied with their start. They have emerged from a daunting run of away fixtures with three deserved draws and only one defeat, 4-1 at Old Trafford. Liverpool, who must pray that Ince is fit, will need to defend considerably better there to avoid a similar fate.

Goals: Rufus (24) 0-1; Fowler pen (32) 1-1; Mendonca (61) 1-2; Berger (67) 2-2; Fowler (82) 3-2; S Jones (83) 3-3.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Friedel; Heggem (Thompson, 85), Carragher, Babb, Staunton (Matteo, 64); McManaman, Redknapp, Harkness (McAteer, 61), Berger; Owen, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Murphy, James (gk).

Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Ilic; Mills, Rufus, Youds, Powell; Newton, Kinsella (K Jones, 74), Redfearn, Robinson; Mendonca, Hunt (S Jones, 78). Substitutes not used: Brown, Mortimer, Petterson (gk).

Referee: P Alcock (Halstead, Kent).

Bookings: Liverpool: Carragher. Charlton: Redfearn, Mills.

Man of the match: Youds.

Attendance: 44,526.