Football: Liverpool learn a painful lesson

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The Independent Online
Liverpool 0

Sheffield Wednesday 1

Whittingham 22

Attendance: 39,507

Sheffield Wednesday, whose own relevance to the Premiership title was generally thought to have ended when their early-season leadership petered out, were unlikely contenders to end a record of impregnability at Anfield stretching back to last November.

But a goal by Guy Whittingham in the first half punished Liverpool for an untidy performance during which they looked anything but favourites to win the competition in the new year.

One vital factor in Wednesday's unexpected victory was the way Peter Atherton stuck to Steve McManaman. Few sides now come to Anfield without planning to give McManaman that sort of attention, but none will carry out the task better than Atherton did yesterday. With their wandering minstrel silenced, there was no one else to supply the notes to harmonise a disjointed Liverpool display.

Wednesday, without a win at Anfield for 12 years, looked more purposeful from the start than that record would suggest. A free-kick from the forceful Mark Pembridge, a header from Andy Booth and a close-range shot from Steve Nicol could all have opened the scoring for the visitors before Whittingham did the trick after 21 minutes.

The goal underlined the sloppy passing which characterised Liverpool's performance. Jason McAteer gave the ball away to Atherton and a back- heel from Benito Carbone allowed Pembridge to continue his policy of shooting on sight. This was one of his less successful efforts until Whittingham slid in to deflect the ball into the net via the post.

It was only in the minutes leading up to half-time that Liverpool discovered the urgency to compensate for their mystifying lack of precision. Kevin Pressman's dreadful clearance saw McAteer chip against the post and the Wednesday goalkeeper then redeemed himself in Peter Schmeichel class - a reflex save from Robbie Fowler's follow-up close-range header. A save soon after from Patrik Berger's fierce shot was almost as good.

Another ball carelessly given away and another Pembridge blast almost extended Wednesday's lead immediately after the break, but the second half, virtually inevitably, was a story of mounting Liverpool pressure.

They came desperately close to an equaliser when the out-of-touch Fowler shot straight at Pressman and McManaman hit the post with a header when he momentarily escaped Atherton. But Wednesday always managed to look incisive and dangerous when they got into Liverpool's half and Booth's header came back off the crossbar when it could have settled the issue beyond any arguments.

The Wednesday manager, David Pleat, declined to share his thoughts on such a memorable win, but Pressman was able to encapsulate Liverpool's lack of penetration. "You always expect to have a lot of work here, but I was surprised to be so inactive for the first 35 minutes," he said. "It's nice to come to Anfield and not have much to do."

For that he could thank Atherton's persistence against McManaman and the commanding central defence of Des Walker and Dejan Stefanovic. But most of all he could thank a substandard Liverpool effort.

"In the second half we had enough of the ball, but we didn't play with our heads,"their manager, Roy Evans, said. "We expect sides to come here and mark Steve McManaman very tightly but today we lacked other options."