Football: Defensive leaks condemn Liverpool

A VISIT to Celta Vigo's official shop on Tuesday morning confirmed the stature of the team the Spaniards were about to meet. "It is a big, big match," the assistant said. "Much bigger than Aston Villa." You suspect he was disappointed when the tigers of repute appeared on the pitch as the Liverpool of frail reality.

The shambolic defending that squandered Liverpool's 1-0 half-time advantage and turned it into a 3-1 defeat is unlikely to be remedied for the return leg, particularly as bookings for Vegard Heggem and Jamie Redknapp mean that they, along with Paul Ince and Steve McManaman, will be suspended at Anfield. The Uefa Cup quarter-finals look a distant and diminishing goal this morning.

True, a 2-0 win at Anfield will be enough, but Liverpool are leaking goals - 15 in their last six matches - and while they might gain encouragement from a flat Celta defence, their attack offers no comfort at all. The Spaniards look made for the counter, as Aston Villa found to their 3-1 cost three weeks ago. The expectation is they will score in the return.

Afterwards Gerard Houllier despaired of his defence, accusing them of making schoolboy errors, but that was to slightly understress the excellence of players like Alexander Mostovoi and Juan Sanchez. They would make any back four edgy and the current Liverpool side can appear fearful against threats of a far lower calibre.

Houllier gambled by jettisoning the back five he had employed to winning effect against Aston Villa on Saturday and lost, although, ironically, his centre backs, Steve Staunton and Bjorn Tore Kvarme, were his best players until the latter was punished for ball watching and hesitation by Vladimir Gudelj deep into injury time.

That third goal almost certainly killed Liverpool's Uefa Cup hopes and, for all Houllier's post-match bravado, you suspect the Frenchman believed it, too. "We could have avoided the two goals we gifted them," he lamented, "but in the second half we lost our shape, discipline and and we lost sight of our tasks. The players are particularly disappointed with the third goal - it was a joke, really.

"The positive thing is that we scored, which will be very important in the return leg. Celta think the game is finished, they think they have gone through. We don't think so. It will be very difficult for us but we have nothing to lose. We have a chance."

Unfortunately for Liverpool that chance this season has become one of the sucker-punch variety. The team resembles a boxer with a knock-out punch who can win bouts if he lands it, but usually succumbs to the blows being rained on himself. They have two brilliant strikers in Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler but, unless they repeatedly find the target, the punishment at the other end is too severe.

Even Saturday's match against Villa, a 4-2 win which hinted at a Liverpool revival, in retrospect was just part of the trend. The attack, Fowler in particular, was devastating but it camouflaged what was happening elsewhere. Dion Dublin missed a penalty and hit a post, Stan Collymore missed two ripe chances and another penalty might have been conceded. On another day the score could have been 7-4 in the home side's favour and Anfield would be contemplating five successive defeats.

The frustrating thing is that at the interval on Tuesday Liverpool appeared to be heading for one of their great European performances. After a rickety start in which they could have conceded three goals in the first 10 minutes, they reorganised themselves and, with David Thompson and Robbie Fowler providing eager outlets and Michael Owen the pace and astonishing cool, there was reason for optimism.

Owen's goal, after 34 minutes, re-emphasised the young man's aplomb. He had missed an easy chance six minutes earlier and even an 18-year-old of his extraordinary quality could have been forgiven for being inhibited when Thompson's through ball found him. Instead, three touches and the ball was not only in the net but the Celta goalkeeper, Richard Dutruel, had been comprehensively flummoxed.

Youth of that ability deserves protection provided by its elders but Owen did not get it. A look at the photographs of all three Celta goals revealed at least half the Liverpool team in the penalty area but the numbers counted, as they have too often this season, for nothing. The defence lack spirit and, most of all, a leader.

The need for a commanding centre-half has been apparent for years but the failure to address it has gone beyond negligence and is approaching a scandal. According to Roy Evans before him and now Houllier, many have been pursued but the fact that none has been landed suggests Liverpool are unwilling to pay enough either in terms of transfer fees or wages. Or unable. In the past only the best was good enough for Anfield.

Houllier watched AZ Alkmaar's 27-year-old centre-back Peter Wijker on Sunday and returned unconvinced but sooner rather than later somebody has to be bought. Liverpool look likely to go out of Europe on 8 December and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they will not qualify for next season. Reputations can be lost as well as won.

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