Football Commentary: Liverpool's spirit willing but flesh weak: Pretenders on parade at Norwich

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The Independent Online
RAY WILKINS, a wise old head on old shoulders, made the far from bold forecast on Match of the Day that Manchester United would retain their title this season. A slip of the tongue saw him add that they would win it next year, too, before he recovered to say that everyone else needed to try harder to prevent pre-eminence from becoming monopoly.

Fair enough. It is only right and proper, to borrow a phrase much favoured by Graham Taylor, when he was not effing and blinding, that they should all try. How many, though, have realistic prospects of dispossessing the champions?

Blackburn Rovers, definitely. Newcastle United, probably. Full stop. The nouveaux riches of the north-west are United's closest challengers, still not out of it with two games in hand and, with a latterday Croesus behind them, they have the resources to close the gap.

The pride of the north-east possess the same boundless potential and ambition, and they, too, may well get there in the end.

As for the rest, a fertile imagination is needed to see any of them finishing ahead of Cantona, Giggs and company next season.

Leeds United managed it two years ago, but have since fallen on hard times to such an extent that they had to sell one of their best players, David Batty, to placate the bank. Paupers don't win championships. Arsenal, in contrast, have the wherewithal, but are oddly reluctant to invest in the influential midfield player George Graham admits he needs.

And so to The Big One - the team whose sustained supremacy United are striving to emulate. For a generation and more Liverpool were the exception to the rule that success is cyclical. Thirteen titles at a rate of one every two years, four European Cups, five FA Cups, etc. It seemed it would never end.

Now we know different. Kenny Dalglish walked out after six years in which Liverpool never finished lower than second in the League, to be replaced by Graeme Souness, who could do no better than sixth in his three-and-a-half year tenure. It was nowhere near good enough, and Souness went 10 days ago, when the club turned to one final relic of the late, lamented Boot Room: Roy Evans.

Roy Who? is unfair, and if most football followers would be hard- pressed to come up with a five-line biography of a coach whose playing career amounted to a handful of first- team appearances: Liverpool and their players probably feel they have had their fill of big-time Charlies.

A studious cove, more given to reason than ranting, Evans should have no problems in matching his predecessor's modest achievements, but he is expected to do rather more, of course, and that will not be easy.

On paper, Liverpool can still field a formidable side. The trouble lies in transferring strength from paper to pitch. Four of their thirty-somethings - Wright, Whelan, Rush and Barnes - are past their best, and it is hard to recall when Mark Walters had his. Another of the Souness signings, Nigel Clough, looks like a daddy's boy lost, and the overall impression is of an imposing institution falling into tatty disrepair.

At Carrow Road on Saturday, they were fortunate to escape with a 2-2 draw, only the profligacy of Norwich City's finishing and a poor refereeing decision sparing Evans a hiding first time out.

He said his players had been 'absolutely magnificent', which was patently untrue, but hyperbole is the language of new managers everywhere, and he can be excused what was possibly an expression of relief that much of the old spirit, at least, remains intact.

If only the same could be said of the defence. Admittedly without Neil Ruddock, suspended, Liverpool were wide open at the back, alarmingly vulnerable to the early ball over the top. The route-one stuff is hardly the Norwich way, but they were quick to identify the weakness and mixed the long ball with their customary short-passing game to profitable effect.

Chris Sutton hustled Wright out of possession and sent a sighter over the bar before Efan Ekoku inflicted the same embarrassment on Ruddock's understudy, Dominic Matteo, in setting up the opening goal.

Ian Crook, the sort of pass master Terry Venables is sure to appreciate, was the instigator, releasing Ekoku on the right where he shouldered poor Matteo into oblivion and crossed for Sutton to score at the near post.

Ekoku, long on pace and power but short on poise, spurned three decent chances and Sutton should have done better with a free header before Gary Megson gave the ball away deep in the penalty area, provoking a panic which had Ian Culverhouse putting through his own net.

Sutton restored Norwich's lead with his 20th goal of the season, working a neat one-two with Jeremy Goss 20 yards out and curling a shot into Bruce Grobbelaar's top-left corner, and that should have been that. Liverpool were

second best, and could have had no complaints had it finished 2-1.

That they pinched a point was down to a mistake by the referee, Dermot Gallagher, who failed to spot that Rush had obstructed Bryan Gunn on the ground, preventing him from moving to meet the left-foot shot with which Barnes equalised.

Two minutes from the end, the goalkeeper was still seething when, composure lost, he raced out of his area and was sent off for handling Steve McManaman's chip.

Again Norwich, so effective away, had been found wanting at home where they have won only three of their 12 League games. The harsh truth is that while they can pass it with the very best, they are not quite good enough when it comes to scoring goals, or preventing them.

Nor are they likely to become so while the chairman, Robert Chase, prefers money in the bank to players on the pitch. By his own admission, there was no need to sell Ruel Fox to Newcastle. Chase chose to do so because he felt the price was right. Leslie Crowther would have been a more suitable manager than John Deehan.

Sutton, we can safely assume, will be the next to go, although not in the current financial year. That, the rapacious Robert tells us, would be bad business.

The East Anglian public are as mild-mannered as the scousers are splenetic, and the demonstration that had been promised over the latest departure did not materialise.

Parsimony or good housekeeping? Are they right to chivvy Chase? You pay your pounds 2m and take your choice.

What is unarguable is that Mike Walker has been thoroughly vindicated. He left to manage Everton, saying Norwich's ambitions did not match his own, which seems true, yet was criticised by Chase for breaking a chicken-feed contract which had less than six months to run.

Four weeks later, Fox was sold to Newcastle, with three-and-a-half years of his contract remaining

because, Chase said, it would be wrong to keep him when he felt he could do better elsewhere. If the man cannot see the inconsistency there, he is away with the Canaries.

Goals: Sutton (11) 1-0; Culverhouse og (53) 1-1; Sutton (63) 2-1; Barnes (76) 2-2.

Norwich City (4-4-2): Gunn; Culverhouse, Polston, Newman, Woodthorpe; Bowen, Crook, Goss, Megson (Eadie, 82; Howie, gk, 90); Sutton, Ekoku. Substitute not used: Butterworth.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Grobbelaar; Jones, Wright, Matteo, Dicks; McManaman, Clough, Whelan, Walters; Rush, Barnes. Substitutes not used: James (gk), Piechnik, Hutchison.

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

(Photograph omitted)