Football: Liverpool leave it late to conquer

PREMIERSHIP: Arsenal's composure undermined by the brilliance and opportunism of McManaman
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The Independent Online
Liverpool 2 Arsenal 0

Under the admiring gaze of Glenn Hoddle, who names his first England squad on Thursday, a one-man swarm by the name of Steve McManaman, made the case for his inclusion irresistible at Anfield last night.

McManaman, showing no sign of staleness after the exertions that left Pele drooling during Euro 96, scored twice in the space of six minutes during the final quarter of a disappointing contest. His marksmanship propelled Liverpool into pole position in the embryonic Premiership table - for the first time in three years - while denying Arsenal the leadership on the eve of Arsene Wenger's confirmation as manager.

This was not, however, a Liverpool performance to have Manchester United quaking in their boot contracts. For long periods, Arsenal remained as unruffled as David Seaman's catwalk-friendly coiffure, and even McManaman needed a deflection to end the stalemate.

Once Liverpool had made the breakthrough, they soon added another and might have conjured further goals as Arsenal's discipline belatedly deserted them. By the time Ian Wright joined the fray, to a mixed reception from their supporters, a game plan which erred on the side of containment rather than counter-attack had been rendered redundant.

On the equivalent evening at the start of last season, Liverpool outplayed Leeds only to succumb to Tony Yeboah's wonder goal. So there were few complaints from the vast majority of the 38,000 crowd that, on this occasion, the display was not of the quality with which their team have traditionally taken residence at the summit.

Arsenal's spirited rearguard action, which belied their wretched pre- season results under Bruce Rioch and reports of dressing-room dismay over his dismissal, was only partly responsible for Liverpool's faltering first half. The slimline John Barnes was one of the few to hit form, and eventually had a part in both goals, without repeating the magic of Middlesbrough.

Perhaps more pertinently, certainly as far as Hoddle's deliberations for the World Cup trek to Moldova are concerned, the partnership of Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore was too easily subdued by a defence in which Martin Keown excelled. So it was as well for Liverpool that McManaman was full of running.

Yet for almost an hour, Steve Morrow worked assiduously at containing McManaman. Seaman, whose warm ovation from the Kop was a reminder of a nation's early-summer unity, was troubled before the interval only by a header from Mark Wright.

David James was also a spectator, although Liverpool hearts were in their mouths as John Hartson tumbled under Mark Wright's challenge. There was to be no repetition of Saturday's dubious award against Liverpool on Teesside.

An expectant crowd were beginning to become restless when Seaman's aura of invincibility was shattered. The first goal, in the 68th minute, followed a rare lapse by the Arsenal defence in allowing Stig Inge Bjornebye to surge unchecked into a left-wing position. The Norwegian's cross was cleared by Keown's diving header, but only as far as Barnes. His short pass found McManaman just inside the penalty area, and although Seaman seemed to have the ensuing drive covered, the ball clipped Steve Bould to leave him wrong-footed.

Arsenal's lack of ambition had been such that they did not know how to change tack. Their caretaker manager, Stewart Houston, sent on Ian Wright, but the tempestuous striker had scarcely broken sweat before Liverpool sealed their victory 17 minutes from time.

From spitting range, Barnes saw his shot brilliant parried by Seaman. The rebound rolled obligingly for McManaman to scuff it past his prostrate England colleague. Lee Jones came within inches of making it 3-0, but that would only have fostered delusions of a grandeur which Liverpool may not yet be equipped to recapture.

Liverpool (3-4-1-2): James; M Wright, Matteo, Babb; McAteer, Thomas, Barnes, Bjornebye; McManaman; Fowler (L Jones, 87), Collymore (Thompson, 87). Subs not used: Ruddock, Carragher, Warner (gk).

Arsenal (5-3-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Linighan, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour, Merson, Morrow (Hillier, 78); Bergkamp (Helder, 87), Hartson (I Wright, 69). Subs not used: Rose, Lukic (gk).

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).