Football: Derby County 3 Liverpool 2 - No defence in Liverpool's European case

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The Independent Online
GERARD HOULLIER may never become the north's complete answer to Arsene Wenger but he is wise enough in the realities of football to know that the reasons he gave for Liverpool's misleadingly narrow defeat at Pride Park on Saturday belied the depth of his problems.

It was, he said, mainly a matter of "defeating ourselves with the frailty of our defending" and an inability to counter Derby's set-piece opportunities. Right on both counts, but then there was the matter of Robbie Fowler and, until he had to leave the field with a slight injury, Michael Owen failing to win anything in the air; Jamie Redknapp never getting to grips with Derby in midfield, and the mystery of the non- appearance in the squad of Steve McManaman.

And all this on a day when Kevin Keegan was there doing his homework. Obviously one of the players he most needed to assess was one of his few left wing candidates, McManaman, who seems to have been on siesta since deciding to join Real Madrid.

Houllier tried to turn it into "no problem", but clearly there is. Indeed, his sagging body language was more expressive than he probably realised. He confessed that a place in Europe next season was looking increasingly unlikely whereas Derby's Jim Smith was rightly full of optimism, but a little confused.

"I just wish someone could tell me what the rules are for getting into Europe next season". Easy answer: carry on playing like this and Europe will come to you.

Liverpool's flaws were deep enough to make it obvious that rumours of Houllier having a big turn-out in the spring need to be taken seriously. But for Derby to floor a team still containing considerable individual talent required a lot more than a few well-placed free-kicks and corners, although they provided the route for their goals.

The foundation work was their immense industry in midfield, where Francesco Baiano was both diligent and thoughtful, and the forward strength of Deon Burton and gangling Paulo Wanchope - who Smith said would confuse him totally if he had to play against him.

Certainly Phil Babb and Rigobert Song were confused for most of the game. Neither got near Burton as he headed in Lars Bohinen's 12th-minute corner, but at least Fowler kept ferreting into the Derby penalty area and was unfortunate to fail almost on the line following a fine run and shot by Owen, who, on another bright run, was felled by Spencer Prior.

"We got so many balls behind their back four or five and all the balls were turning into real chances," Derby's Croatian defender, Igor Stimac said.

"They have to sign some proper players. They're a huge club and there are a lot of good defenders in the world. They have to find good defenders and get them because if not, they'll never do anything."

Fowler's penalty lifted Liverpool but only temporarily. Wanchope simply reopened their flimsy defence with a 12-yard header, then with a wonderful turn and shot. Although Fowler deservedly thumped in Dominic Matteo's shrewd pass across the penalty area, and, as Smith admitted, Derby were "running on empty", it is Liverpool who are no longer in the running.

Goals: Burton (12) 1-0; Fowler (36,pen) 1-1; Wanchope (44) 2-1; Wanchope (49) 3-1; Fowler (57) 3-2.

Derby County (3-4-1-2): Hoult; Prior, Stimac, Laursen; Eranio (Harper, 82), Bohinen, Powell, Schnoor (Carbonari, 66); Baiano (Borbokis, 66); Wanchope, Burton. Substitutes not used: Poom (gk), Christie.

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Song, Staunton (Bjornebye, 24), Babb; Heggem, Gerrard, Redknapp, Berger, Matteo;, Owen (Riedle, 46), Fowler. Substitutes not used: Friedel (gk), Kvarme, Leonhardsen.

Bookings: Derby: Stimac (23), Powell (33). Liverpool: Fowler (30).

Referee: G Barber (Pyrford).

Man of the match: Wanchope.

Attendance: 32,913 (ground record).