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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there