Football: Double act set to take its final bow

Leicester City 1 Liverpool 0
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The Independent Online
AFTER ANOTHER off-key performance by Liverpool's so-called Spice Boys, who were upstaged by a veteran of the Mersey beat and a working- class hero called Lennon, Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier may be approaching the point where two becomes one.

A comparison between Liverpool's Premiership position now and 12 months ago reveals them to be several places better off. Leicester, for all the euphoria over Martin O'Neill's decision to stay, actually stand lower and have fewer points.

Such facts, however, prove merely that there are lies, damned lies and football statistics. For despite their peculiar power-sharing arrangement, or possibly because of it, Liverpool demonstrated nothing against a resurgent Leicester to show that they are any nearer to recapturing the pre-eminence they enjoyed in the 1980s.

Admittedly, a sodden afternoon at Filbert Street offered a particularly damning snapshot of life under Evans and Houllier. Jason McAteer was sent off, albeit harshly, by the card-crazed Mike Reed during Liverpool's ragged response to a late goal by the former Everton player Tony Cottee.

Robbie Fowler allegedly traded unpleasantries with spectators as he warmed up on the touchline. And in the more meaningful exchanges, Steve McManaman and Paul Ince made scant impact on the struggle for midfield supremacy with Muzzy Izzet and the outstanding Neil Lennon.

The broader picture is no more encouraging for Liverpool. True, they hit Nottingham Forest for five, yet they have taken just six of the last 21 points. A Uefa Cup exit at Valencia tomorrow, in a tie poised at 0- 0, would surely hasten a re-evaluation of the merits of joint management.

Were the board to find against it, Houllier would almost certainly assume control. Bringing him in during the summer was, after all, a tacit admission that the board felt that Evans' way was not working. A cynic might even have interpreted the Frenchman's untypical reticence in the face of media questioning as distancing himself from this defeat.

He and Evans were at least united in frustration over Liverpool's failure to turn possession into penetration. Ince's tendency to play safe passes in a manner synonymous with Messrs Batty and Wilkins epitomised the problem; likewise McManaman's preference for unproductive cross-field dribbles in circumstances where Ryan Giggs, for example, would go past a defender before shooting or crossing.

Cottee, having advanced to within three goals of a double century in League football, naturally had more to say for himself. At 33, the former England striker rescued by O'Neill from Malaysian football acknowledged the logic of the manager's search for a new front player, but argued that his rapport with Emile Heskey was improving all the time.

His fifth goal in as many games, a deft header from Heskey's equally subtle cross after the 20-year-old had turned Steve Staunton, stemmed from a through-ball by Lennon of the kind Michael Owen must have craved. Heskey also exuded power and presence, qualities which Matt Elliott matched at the back but were conspicuous by their absence in the visitors' line- up.

Cottee recalled going to Liverpool with West Ham and "hardly getting a kick" in a 6-0 stuffing. As one who also scored some precious goals in Merseyside derbies, he has the context in which to assess the latter- day Liverpool lite.

"If you're going to be up there, winning titles, you have to be looking to win at places like Leicester. Arsenal didn't play that well here but they still went away with a point."

Whatever the season holds for Anfield, it is time the moneyed elite got wise to all this kidology about "places like Leicester". O'Neill is a master of talking down his team's prospects in public while privately preparing them to play to the peak of their potential.

As a consequence, Leicester continue to confound low expectations. Liverpool and their seemingly doomed double act have the opposite quandary.

Goal: Cottee (79) 1-0.

Leicester City (3-5-2): Keller; Sinclair, Elliott, Ullathorne; Savage (Wilson, 77), Zagorakis (Walsh, 58), Lennon, Izzet, Guppy; Cottee, Heskey. Substitutes not used: Parker, Fenton, Arphexad (gk).

Liverpool (4-3-1-2): James; Heggem, Carragher, Staunton, Bjornebye; McAteer, Ince, Berger (Fowler, 79); McManaman; Owen, Riedle. Substitutes not used: Kvarme, Thompson, Harkness, Friedel (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Bookings: Leicester: Elliott. Liverpool: Carragher, McManaman, McAteer, Fowler. Sending-off: Liverpool: McAteer.

Attendance: 21,837.

Man of the match: Lennon.