Football: Houllier finding the road to success

t PREMIERSHIP Liverpool manager's relentless rebuilding is paying off at last while Manchester United's England striker grabs his opportunities
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Liverpool 2 Derby County 0

EXACTLY WHAT Georghi Kinkladze made of it all, following his exile in the anaemic world of Ajax, would have been fascinating to hear. Derby's Georgian recruit watched, as impassive in the stand as he is expressive on the ball, while a contest in which the stretcher bearers often appeared more involved than Michael Owen finished with one broken leg but not a single yellow card.

The fractured fibula which curtailed Stefano Eranio's activities until the new year, sustained in a challenge by Sami Hyypia which brought only a free-kick against Liverpool, divided two of the Premiership's more honourable and affable managers. Gerard Houllier detected not a trace of malice, whereas Jim Smith deemed the tackle "diabolical" and claimed the referee's assessor shared his dim view of Uriah Rennie's leniency.

Judging by Match of the Day's blink-and-miss-it coverage, the television evidence was not simply ambiguous: it did not exist. Wherever the cameras were focused at the time, which was midway through the first half, it was not on Eranio and Hyypia. They homed in only as the Italian lay prostrate and the Finn protested his innocence, which in itself raises questions about crime, punishment and the use of technology in football.

The Football Association is making a habit of dealing with miscreants spotted on slow-motion replay after being missed by the officials. Leicester's Matt Elliott was hauled up for a forearm smash on Owen, and Brian Deane faces similar censure after being trapped in the spotlight at Middlesbrough on Saturday. If Smith is right about the assessor, Hyypia could also be belatedly brought to book, although his offence, surely more careless than calculating, was hardly in the sly, off-the-ball category.

Either way, it is a worrying trend. The referee's decision must be final, even if he is as error-prone as Mr Rennie has proved this season in sending off Alan Shearer and missing Elliott's assault. That has always been a fundamental tenet of football. By pursuing retrospective justice, the FA is undermining the authority of referees at a time when they are under fire as never before.

The BBC's apparent failure to capture the incident at Anfield also highlights the dangers of trial by video. Is a suspect to be pursued only when the cameras happen to catch him? If not, the need for fairness and consistency dictates that we must have good-quality footage from all League fixtures.

Even though Smith called their goals "scrappy" - because Danny Murphy's shot after a fine run went in off Spencer Prior, and Jamie Redknapp looked well offside before benefiting from a wretched mis-kick by Russell Hoult - what seems beyond dispute is that Houllier is gradually turning Liverpool around. The Frenchman reaches his first anniversary in charge on Friday in fifth place, compared with 11th when his partnership with Roy Evans ended.

A sixth match without defeat constitutes Liverpool's best run in 19 months. However, the real proof of their improvement lay in their fluid attacking before they were unbalanced by injuries first to Vladimir Smicer and then Titi Camara, and in the developing understanding between Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz in the problem area of central defence.

Add the fact that Sander Westerveld looks to have settled in goal, and that Dietmar Hamann shows signs of becoming an enormously influential figure in midfield, and a rapidly gelling side could put pressure on the leading pack once Robbie Fowler returns.

Worryingly for Kevin Keegan, as England's struggle with Scotland draws close, Liverpool's most below-par performer was Owen. Houllier said, a tad irritably, that he would not have picked him had he not been match- fit. He then admitted substituting him because his condition might have led to his picking up a strain.

Derby's daunting sequence continues against Manchester United, Arsenal and Leeds once Euro 2000 play-off hysteria has abated. It will be slender consolation as they look up from the lower reaches, but Liverpool insiders considered them in a higher class than Bradford, who had visited the previous Monday.

Although Deon Burton headed against the bar, there was no one to make defenders turn or squirm, no element of the unexpected, especially after Eranio left in an ambulance. Which is where, work permit permitting, the leather-jacketed guest in the directors' box answering to the nickname "Kinky" should come into his own.

Goals: Murphy (66) 1-0; Redknapp (70) 2-0.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld; Heggem, Henchoz, Hyypia, Staunton; Carragher, Hamann, Redknapp, Smicer (Murphy, 15); Camara (Meijer, 58), Owen (Gerrard, 80). Substitutes not used: Thompson, Nielsen (gk).

Derby County (4-4-2): Hoult; Laursen, Carbonari, Schnoor, Dorigo; Delap, Eranio (Borbokis, 22), Powell, Johnson (Prior, 51); Burton, Fuertes (Sturridge, 51). Substitutes not used: Christie, Knight (gk).

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).

Man of the match: Henchoz.

Attendance: 44,467.

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