Football: Earle scuppers leaky Liverpool

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The Independent Online
Liverpool. . . .2

Wimbledon. . . .3

WHEN Robbie Earle slid in his second goal 15 minutes from the end to sink Liverpool and push them to the brink of the Premier League relegation zone, it was the 11th their defence had leaked in eight days. They used to be proud of their seaworthiness in Liverpool, and perhaps in some respects they still are. If Captain Mark Wright and his crew tried to set sail on the Mersey, they would probably be turned back at the Pier Head.

For it was their inability to caulk the seams that cost Liverpool a game in which they looked much the better side without ever suggesting that they had rediscovered the fine, flowing football that used to be served up at Anfield as regularly as the half-time tea.

Wimbledon, on the other hand, played as they always have: direct and robust, their ambitions rarely stretched beyond the counter-punch; but it was enough. They had nothing to teach Liverpool about football - except the importance of a sound defence.

After their worst start for years, conceding four goals to Third Division Chesterfield in midweek finally convinced their manager, Graeme Souness, of the need for a steady and reliable hand on the tiller. Those might not be the first qualities you associate with Bruce Grobbelaar, but Souness brought him back for his first League game of the season in place of David James, and if his performance was at times as eccentric as we have come to expect, there were plenty of others with whom he could share the blame for this third consecutive League defeat.

Indeed, he had scarcely touched the ball before the slack marking of his colleagues had him picking it out of the net. Andy Clarke played a one-two on the edge of the box with John Fashanu, who held off half-hearted challenges long enough to control it on his chest and steer it wide of the goalkeeper. Liverpool's consolation was that the 11th-minute goal was against the run of the scrappy early play.

Souness had warned in his programme notes that Liverpool would not be put off their passing game by Wimbledon's more basic tactics, and the goal seemed to remind his players of that as Jan Molby and Jamie Redknapp launched a series of attacks which should have brought an equaliser from Mark Walters, Ronny Rosenthal or Don Hutchison.

But Wimbledon increased their lead when Grobbelaar advanced to punch Justin Skinner's free-kick off Fashanu's head, only to see the ball fall to Earle, who chipped it back into the empty net.

It was already beginning to seem like another one of those days for Liverpool, especially when a corner found Hutchison unmarked in the six-yard box, but he screwed the ball into a ruck of defenders. Liverpool's luck seemed to have turned when Rosenthal, who had always looked their most dangerous attacker, was brought down by Earle, Molby converting the subsequent penalty. And Rosenthal was the inspiration for the equaliser, too. He looked to have been bundled off the ball, but stuck out a foot to lob it over Hans Segers and on to the crossbar, giving Steve McManaman an easy tap-in on his return to the side.

Yet Grobbelaar might have undone all the good work with a typical piece of ill-advised showmanship. Challenged by Neal Ardley, he threw the ball out behind his back and into the path of Vinny Jones, who could only shoot straight back at the goalkeeper.

Rosenthal continued to offer Liverpool's most serious threat. His jinking run on the left took him deep into the Wimbledon box, and his cross rebounded to Hutchison, whose 20-yard drive was deflected over the bar. He then combined with Molby and Mark Walters to release Redknapp, who should have done better than shoot hurriedly wide. Then it was McManaman's turn to torment the Wimbledon defence from the opposite flank, but Segers cut out his angled shot. When Fashanu flicked on Segers's long goal-kick for Earle to outpace Wright, another dismal afternoon for the Kop was complete.

Grobbelaar said afterwards: 'There is a lack of co-ordination at the back, and we have got to get it sorted out. Conceding seven at Anfield in a week is a bit of a sickener. We had better get it sorted out or we will be dead and buried.'

Liverpool: B Grobbelaar; M Marsh, D Burrows, T Piechnik, J Redknapp, M Wright, R Rosenthal, S McManaman, D Hutchison, J Molby, M Walters (I Kozma 81 min). Substitutes not used: M Tanner, D James (gk). Manager: G Souness.

Wimbledon: H Segers; W Barton, J Skinner, V Jones, J Scales, S Fitzgerald, N Ardley (P Miller 74 min), R Earle, J Fashanu, D Holdsworth (L Sanchez, 49 min), A Clarke. Substitute not used: N Sullivan (gk). Manager: J Kinnear.

Referee: R Milford (Bristol).

Goals: Fashanu (0-1, 11 min); Earle (0-2, 26 min); Molby (1-2 pen, 33 min); McManaman (2-2, 39 min); Earle (2-3, 75 min).