At times in the last Premiership fixture at Anfield the home defending in front of the Kop was of the Keystone variety against Charlton. Not that anyone in the Liverpool camp was laughing when the slapstick stuff was repeated for 20 minutes at Old Trafford. With two defeats in their last three league games, not to mention the moral defeat of that 3-3 draw against Charlton, crunch time has come earlier than usual for Liverpool this season. Another defeat and another defensively flawed performance this afternoon, when Chelsea visit Merseyside, and the Anfield alarm bells will be ringing for Gerard Houllier and Roy Evans.
Liverpool's supporters are already alarmed. Just seven games into the new season, they can see another championship challenge falling apart at the seams - or at the back. The Achilles heel that was evident throughout the 1997-98 campaign, when Liverpool's goals- against record crept above one per game for the first time in four seasons, has been painfully prominent in recent weeks. Phil Babb and Jamie Carragher may have held firm in the 5-0 formality against Kosice on Tuesday but theirs is not the kind of assured central defensive partnership of which championship dreams are made.
The last time Liverpool's title dreams came true, the afternoon they beat Queen's Park Rangers to clinch their 18th title, in 1990, Gary Gillespie stepped on to Anfield as a central defensive substitute for the injured Alan Hansen. Last week he lamented the passing of the days in which defensive replacements were bought and groomed in the reserves for a year or two, as he was after his pounds 300,000 signing from Coventry City. He also pointed to the lack of authority at the heart of the Liverpool defence these days. "They miss someone who can attack the ball in the air, a figure that has been their trademark," Gillespie said. "Look at Ron Yeats, Phil Thompson and Alan Hansen. Only Mark Wright has come close in recent years."
Alan Kennedy has been saying much the same thing on the phone-in show he hosts for Radio Merseyside. As a left- back with a lethal left foot, of course, he struck the shots that won the European Cup finals of 1981 and 1984 - for Liverpool teams featuring, respectively, Thompson and Hansen and Hansen and Mark Lawrenson at the centre of defence. "I think it's become clear over the past 18 months," Kennedy said, "that Liverpool need a commanding centre-half - a Hansen or a Lawrenson, a strapping defender who can play a bit but who can win headers too.
"Lack of aerial power in defence has been Liverpool's biggest single problem. They've been suffering since Mark Wright sustained the injury that cut short his career. Mark did not have the best of times when he first came to the club but he certainly looked the part before he got injured. He has been a big miss."
Roy Evans would not disagree. "The fact is we are searching high and low for someone to play at the back," he admitted last week. That search took the Scouse half of Liverpool's managerial partnership high in the sky again on Wednesday night: to the continent to watch a Champions' League match. And last weekend Evans was in the low countries, assessing the AZ Alkmaar defender Peter Wijker in the Dutch club's 4-1 home win against PSV Eindhoven. Other possible purchases have been mentioned in dispatches - Matt Elliott, Alan Stubbs, Salvatore Fresi of Internazionale - but Wijker and John Mjallby, the AIK Stockholm player who scored Sweden's winner against England last month, appear to be realistic targets in a quest that is threatening to overtake the pursuit of another title as Liverpool's holy grail.
The irony is that Ron Yeats, who launched the great Anfield defensive dynasty, has been a leading member of the search party. A pounds 30,000 Shankly signing from Dundee United in 1961, who achieved instant Anfield idolatry by shackling Sunderland's Brian Clough on his home debut, he has been Liverpool's chief scout for 12 years. Yeats actually started his working life, in his native Aberdeen, as a slaughterman. Now his job is to help Liverpool avoid the kind of slaughter they suffered when they last played Chelsea. It was clear at Stamford Bridge in April, as the Reds were cut down 4-1 and the championship dream perished for another year, that Liverpool were in urgent need of central defensive reinforcements.
Six months later they have yet to arrive, leaving Evans singing what has become a familiar Liverpool lament. "Any team that is going to win something," he said on Thursday, "has got to be tighter than we've been over the past few games." The riddle for Liverpool as another title challenge goes on the line, is not how the striking assets of Karlheinz Reidle might be accommodated in an attack led by Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, but how the defence might survive the season without being riddled with holes.