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Football: Ince in the shadow of Dutchman

Coventry City 2 Liverpool 1

JUST WHEN it seemed they had rediscovered consistency, Liverpool slipped into old habits, turning in a performance that simply was not adequate against a Coventry side who deserve better than to be worrying about relegation.

Whether it was the news, finally confirmed, that Steve McManaman really is to leave in the summer, or whether it was the after-shock from the FA Cup defeat at Old Trafford, something put Liverpool off their stroke. Gerard Houllier may wonder if the revival of the last month was an illusion.

"We had chances but we also made mistakes and in the Premiership if you make a mistake you have to pay," the Frenchman said. His grasp of English is such that the pat explanations fall from his tongue quite effortlessly.

But he did allude, more meaningfully, to Coventry's spirit; and in a way from which it was understood that he felt Liverpool's was lacking. "They [Coventry] are fighting for their lives," he said, "but we have a fight, too, to get back to the top. Coventry wanted very much to win today."

Naturally, he singled out no one for criticism, excusing David James for letting in the goals on the grounds that his saves have won matches on other occasions. But if he fingers anyone in private it may well be Paul Ince, whose failure to impose himself has lately become an all-too- regular occurrence.

The England player famous for the curling lip and crunching tackle was out-fought and out-growled by George Boateng, the former Dutch Under-21 captain who did precisely the same when these sides met at Highfield Road 13 months ago.

Boateng, 23 and full of energy and power, was a good yard keener than 31-year-old Ince in almost every robust challenge. Then again, he is more Bryan Robson than Ince, a player managers like to call a good box-to-box man. But if the goal he scored, a diving header, came from commitment and courage, the one he set up came with a subtle touch, a precisely lobbed pass that invited the willing Noel Whelan to put Coventry in control. What a pity, Glenn Hoddle may have mused as he watched from the directors' box, that he had not been born - sorry, reincarnated - an Englishman.

That Gordon Strachan, who clearly has an eye for a bargain, could sign him for just pounds 250,000 is extraordinary. One can only assume that his previous club, Feyenoord, where his contract was running out when Coventry stepped in, made an enormous blunder.

Boateng's drive and Gary McAllister's nous on a sticky pitch that did not suit Jamie Redknapp gave Coventry a decisive edge, even though it took them an hour to impose themselves. The threat from Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler did not emerge until Coventry lost right-back Roland Nilsson at half-time and even then it was not until Houllier went for broke, sending on McManaman and Karl-Heinz Riedle, that the home side came under sustained attack.

Rigobert Song, the pounds 2.5m Cameroon international, created a favourable impression in the 68 minutes he had in Liverpool's back three but Houllier needs to bring in further, high quality reinforcements, both alongside Song and further up the field before his side can mount a challenge of genuine substance.

Goals: Boateng (60) 1-0; Whelan (71) 2-0; McManaman (86) 2-1.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Nilsson (Breen, 45), Williams, Shaw, Burrows; Boateng, McAllister, Soltvedt, Froggatt; Whelan, Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Gioacchino, Clement, Aloisi, Ogrizovic (gk).

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Song (McManaman, 68), Staunton (Gerrard 86), Matteo; Heggem, Redknapp, Ince, Berger (Riedle 77), Bjornebye; Fowler, Owen. Substitutes not used: Harkness, Friedel (gk).

Referee: M Riley (Leeds).

Bookings: Liverpool: Heggem, Song.

Man of the match: Boateng.

Attendance: 23,056.