Football: Familiar failings bewilder Liverpool

Leicester City 1 Liverpool 0 Cottee 79 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 21,837
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The Independent Online
SO MUCH for those heartless chaps in red chasing those Foxes until they drop. The roles were somewhat reversed yesterday as Liverpool once again betrayed a singular lack of cohesion and inspiration away from Anfield while Leicester's performance fully vindicated their manager Martin O'Neill's decision to put honour before ambition and remain at Filbert Street.

The fact that Leicester's 77th-minute winner arrived from the head of Tony Cottee, for seven years a member of Liverpool's old enemy across Stanley Park, will not have been lost on the visiting faithful, who can rarely have witnessed their side give a more dispirited or disjointed show after a first 20 minutes in which they assumed control with play of typical Anfield fluidity. As the opposition manager O'Neill expressed it, after his first home game since deciding to resist Leeds' overtures: "Liverpool passed it around so brilliantly early on that we had to learn to play without possession - if that doesn't sound too Irish."

But in a half of two halves, Liverpool retreated without appropriate reward for their toils as Leicester began to grow in stature. Although the visitors' joint manager Roy Evans dismissed the contest as "a game of very few chances for either side - and we never got it right", it was an afternoon when City's team ethic took the eye more than individuals, although 20-year-old Emile Heskey and his 13-years-older striking partner Cottee blended splendidly, Neil Lennon seized too much initiative in midfield for Liverpool's comfort and Matt Elliott was the rock in defence.

Liverpool's management duo of Evans and Gerard Houllier, who always look as though they should bring in guitars to post-match press conferences and give their verdict in song, have precious little to croon about on this occasion. Indeed, Evans' rendition was a solo effort which principally paid tribute to their rivals' accumen. "It was puzzling. We chose the wrong pass or the wrong position - that was the story of our day. But having said that, Leicester are very difficult to beat. Gone are the days when you come here to play relegation candidates."

Even Michael Owen barely had a sniff of goal, as he reverted back to Clark Kent guise after last week's super-human effort against Nottingham Forest, and the only tally which rose throughout the game was that of the Liverpool cautions. They ended up with five, including two for Jason McAteer, the second of which in the 85th minute for a late challenge on Lennon led to his sending-off. It looked more than a trifle harsh, but all Houllier would say was: "If you're asking the question, you obviously think it was too."

By then, Leicester had deservedly translated their supremacy into goal power. Lennon despatched an astute ball through to Heskey, who left Steve Staunton almost statuesque as he cut into the area. When the England Under- 21 striker centred firmly across goal there was more chance of hearing Gary Lineker swearing than that arch-predator Cottee heading the ball wide from inches off the line. The goal was both a trick and a treat for home fans. It was also Cottee's seventh of a memorable season "He's been here just over a season and has been out on loan to Birmingham, but this term he has taken his chance, with Ian Marshall injured," O'Neill enthused. "He's been magnificent for us and played every game. We give him the time off he needs to recuperate and we don't overwork him in training.

Cottee might have had another in the closing seconds had David James not thwarted him at the near post following one of several excellent crosses from Steve Guppy, a player, who appropriately for the sodden conditions looked far from a fish out of water on the left flank.

The manager added: "Tony has always been used to playing in the area but he has attempted better than at any stage in his career to play outside it here. He can't neglect that because we're not good enough."

Which in a sense answers the next question - can Leicester challenge for the title, or at least entertain thoughts of Europe? Seven games without defeat suggests that is not a ludicrous thought but O'Neill maintains: "We need some more players. The nucleus of the side is very very good. Lennon is world class and Muzzy Izzet, I'm just in love with that young man, and as Tony Cottee says he's buying us some time. But we don't have the backbone."

The Liverpool rest home for gentlefolk and overworked footballers had allowed all their celebrated guests out for the journey south despite the proximity of Tuesday's Uefa Cup tie at Valencia, although Robbie Fowler was on the bench and only joined the fray belatedly and Jamie Redknapp is injured.

With an indifferent sequence of away results behind them they had dearly required a profitable start to settle them, and although Steve McManaman flattered briefly he failed to make the breakthrough and Paul Ince and Owen were respectively wayward and weak with a brace of half-chances before the interval. Afterwards their only opportunity came when Karlheinz Riedle found space but struck his shot straight at Kasey Keller. It summed up a wasted afternoon.