Football: Home truths haunt Evans

Pressure mounts on Liverpool's undynamic duo while Gascoigne inspires nine-man Boro to stunning draw
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The Independent Online
Liverpool 1 Derby County 2

Redknapp 84 Harper 6, Wanchope 27

Half-time: 0-2 Attendance: 44,020

LIVERPOOL, once the byword for consistency, are becoming the eccentric old dears of the Premiership. After their midweek heroics in Valencia, they returned to League duty expecting to erase a disappointing display at Leicester with a victory over their traditional whipping boys.

Derby had not won at Anfield for 28 years, but the Liverpool defence gifted them two well-taken goals inside the first half hour and the rest was all uphill. To add insult to injury, Derby had six first-team regulars out and pitched in Kevin Harper, who scored within six minutes of his full League debut, and Steve Elliott, who was the pick of the Derby defenders.

"We can't keep climbing mountains," Roy Evans, Liverpool's co-manager, said. "It was not entirely poor defending, we also had enough chances to win the game." The thoughts were echoed by the French half of the managerial double act, whose working partnership will now come under even closer scrutiny. "We can't have a relationship which works in Valencia and one which doesn't work now," said Gerard Houllier. But doubts which surfaced in an inept defeat at Leicester were redoubled here and the patience of the most faithful fans in the League is beginning to wear as thin as Houllier's hair. Liverpool were whistled off at half-time and jeered off at the end, with Paul Ince, the captain, being singled out for opprobrium.

Their first home defeat of the season capped a topsy-turvy week. But a momentum for change is starting to build up on the ground and it will only be a matter of time before it is reflected back from the boardroom. Liverpool are already trailing in the championship and despite Evans' optimistic claim that Arsenal were in roughly the same position this time last year, there is little to suggest that this Liverpool side can mount a serious challenge to either the defending champions or Manchester United. Ince has become a symbol of an ailing club and Evans's vehement defence of his captain in midweek dealt another blow to the unquestioned moral authority Liverpool once enjoyed. Ince has been on the carpet so often this season he should be sponsored by Axminster, and he was lucky not to be booked again yesterday for a late lunge at Elliott. His time, at national and international level, must be running out.

Far from bringing a sense of tactical sophistication to Liverpool's play, Houllier's arrival has seemingly prompted few changes. If the defence is his domain, the first two goals should require careful scrutiny. Houllier might want to know why Harper, all 5ft 8in of him, was allowed to rise unchallenged at the far post to head home a long and deep cross from Tony Dorigo after just six minutes. Or why, on the half hour, a lower, swifter, cross found Paulo Wanchope galloping in to thump home Derby's second, also with his head. After Emile Heskey had terrified Liverpool's central defence with his power and pace last Saturday, Wanchope caused havoc this week, holding the ball up and giving his cohorts, Deon Burton and Harper, room to probe Liverpool's suspect flanks.

Liverpool did, indeed, have their moments. Unfortunately, most of them fell to Robbie Fowler, whose midweek histrionics would have been more potent had he managed to convert any one of half a dozen chances. Twice he beat the goalkeeper to a through ball only to clip an inviting cross into no-man's-land, once only a perfectly timed saving tackle by Elliott saved Derby. The one time Fowler did beat Russell Hoult in the first half, he hit the post with a header. When he did get a shot on target, a ferocious left-foot effort in the second half, Hoult saved brilliantly. Otherwise, Liverpool's build-up was far too predictable and Michael Owen's contribution far too fitful to mount a period of coherent pressure.

"It was a game for heroes," Jim Smith, the Derby manager said. "I didn't even know the names of some of our substitutes." No one should be fooled. Just as he had bemused Manchester United by pitching in an extra forward, so he tried the same ambitious ploy at Anfield, playing three forwards and relying on the industry of Lars Bohinen and Daryll Powell to shore up the midfield. Smith picked out Elliott's as the outstanding contribution.

"It was good to get the early break because it gave us something to work on," he said. A late goal fashioned by McManaman and converted from close range by Redknapp only heightened the sense of frustration at Anfield. Liverpool charged forward to produce a frantic finale, but Derby refused to wilt and, at times on the break, looked the more likely scorers. Wanchope's left-foot drive whistled past the post in the dying minutes. "I can't fault the effort," added Evans. "It was the most disappointing result, not the most disappointing match," echoed Houllier. Tuesday's Worthington Cup tie against Tottenham has now taken on an apocalyptic hue. Liverpool cannot afford another season in the wasteland.

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