Football: Houllier horror has no defence

Liverpool 1 Leeds United 3
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The Independent Online
THERE WERE two portents on the walk from Stanley Park. Over a caption "the Liverpool defence" a fanzine had empty space while a man selling replicas of the famous sign in the players' tunnel "This is Anfield" was having to offer free posters with them to get trade.

Both provided an apt commentary on what would follow. Liverpool's back four disappeared in the last 15 minutes while the notion that coming to Anfield is an intimidating experience was laid low by the third home defeat in eight days. The team were giving things away, too. Goals.

The last remnant of the old Boot Room was removed when Roy Evans left last week and the surviving traces of Liverpool as a football power in the Premiership is being eradicated almost by the match. Managers used to come into Anfield's press room to talk about awakening nightmares but never were they talking about the team in red. Gerard Houllier gave the impression of a team so fragile they shatter at the slightest knock.

"I thought it was a penalty," the Liverpool manager said of Leeds' first goal which began with Jonathan Woodgate bringing down David Thompson at the other end of the pitch. "It was a decision which changed the face of the game. We are too frail mentally and that goal killed us. We just didn't have the legs after that."

Too frail? Didn't have the legs? Contrary to popular legend, Liverpool teams had bad decisions at Anfield before but they fought furiously to put them right with goals of their own. Tommy Smith or Graeme Souness did not disappear to feel sorry for themselves, they took on more responsibility. It was a trick for the eyes but they seemed to get bigger.

Not this Liverpool. One goal and they went to pieces so that by the end Leeds looked capable of scoring on every attack. This a team, note, who had five players aged 21 playing, who had not won away in the Premiership, and who were so uncowed by travelling to Anfield they used an ambitious 3-4-3 formation.

They will not be the only ones to fancy their chances in the former citadel.

Everyone in the Premiership knows a high ball into the area will have Liverpool flapping and while they persist in playing full-backs who are defensively suspect they are unlikely to stop that danger at source even if they do unearth a commanding centre-back.

Houllier also pondered why the team could not stretch to 90 minutes what they do for 70, which is an easy one. Their central midfield, Paul Ince and Jamie Redknapp, simply run out of fuel at that point which is partly why Liverpool concede late goals. When Leeds got their third on Saturday both were 60 yards behind the scorer, Jimmy Hasselbaink.

Ince, "the Guvnor", is declining at an alarming rate. No longer able to surge forward with the same urgency of his Manchester United days, he nevertheless did a good job for Liverpool tidying up play in front of the back four in his first season but appears to have lost even that in recent matches. On Saturday he barely won a 50-50 challenge and if the referee had seen his flick at David Hopkin he might have dragged his already atrocious disciplinary record deeper into disrepute.

According to Houllier, Gallagher did not notice much, complaining that fouls instigated Leeds' first two goals but even though he was probably right it does not condone his defenders who resembled flunkeys ushering a dignitary on as Harry Kewell and Hasselbaink ran at them. If you cannot cope when you are counter-attacked then you are always going to be in trouble.

Liverpool will not want to remember any of the goals but you suspect Leeds' first will linger in the mind of Alan Smith. Just 18, he would have been with the England youth team in Israel but for the international tensions in the Middle East and with his first touch after coming on as substitute he calmly placed the ball into the corner of the net. His father was there to watch it too.

As for the visitors' opener that had Liverpool wilting like flowers, the Leeds manager, David O'Leary, saw nothing wrong. "Give me a break," he said.

"If they are claiming that as a penalty they are in a sad state."

Liverpool are, David. They are.

Goals: Fowler (68, pen) 1-0; Smith (78) 1-1; Hasselbaink (80) 1-2; Hasselbaink (85) 1-3.

Liverpool (4-4-2): James, Heggem, Carragher, Staunton, Bjornebye; Thompson, Ince, Redknapp, Berger; Riedle (Leonhardsen, 69), Fowler. Substitutes (not used): Kvarme, Babb, Murphy, Friedle(gk).

Leeds United (3-4-3): Martyn; Woodgate, Hiden, Molenaar; Halle, Bowyer, Hopkin, Harte; Wyjnhard (Smith, 75), Hasselbaink. Substitutes (not used): Haaland, Wetherall, Ribeiro, Robinson.

Bookings: Liverpool: Bjornebye, Thompson; Leeds: Bowyer, Hiden, Smith.

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Man of the match: Hiden.

Attendance: 44,305.