Football: Liverpool limited by lingering doubts: The FA Cup holders have been unable to heal last season's wounds before facing the champions, Leeds United, in today's traditional pre-season charity match at Wembley. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
JUST six weeks after the final of the European Championship, It's That Time Again. No decent break for rest and recuperation - no wonder today's FA Charity Shield induces nothing so much as deja vu.

Liverpool arrive at Wembley with another benchful of casualties, Leeds United are again preaching the hand-in- glove virtues of diligence and professionalism. As Howard Wilkinson said yesterday, it is as if they never went away.

Leeds' lugubrious manager is not so much down to earth as subterranean when discussing his team's prospects of retaining their championship.

Only Liverpool have managed it these last 30 years and, Wilkinson said, 'If we finish on top again, the records will merely show that we maintained our place. From that point of view, it's downhill unless we win the European Cup.'

Leeds expect a stronger challenge from Liverpool this time, but the omens are not good. Graeme Souness would be happier if everyone was fit, the Kop more optimistic if that suspect defence had been strengthened by the recruitment of a latterday Ron Yeats. We can safely assume that Shankly would not have invited reporters to circumnavigate Nicky Tanner in awe.

Big centre halves are still to be the way of it, the consensus among managers being that the Continental sophistication they admired in Sweden would not stand up to the rigours of the most punishing domestic season of them all. It is an old argument, of course, and one which scarcely squares with Liverpool's abandonment of 4-4-2 in favour of 3-5-2, and Leeds' recent deployment of Gary Speed in a quasi-sweeper's role, but more of that next week, when George Graham will defend the traditionalists' view.

The impression that Liverpool will again fall short of the unmatched standards they have set themselves has been fuelled by pre-season defeats against Monaco (1-2), Borussia Dortmund (2-3) and Rosenborg of Norway (0-1), and it will take more than the midweek annihilation of Tranmere Rovers (7-1) to convince an increasingly sceptical public that happy days are here again.

Most of the problems which had Souness and his team floundering in the unfamiliar depths of sixth place last season are again in evidence, with John Barnes, Rob Jones, Steve McManaman and Jan Molby at various stages of convalescence.

The frequent absences of Barnes, the Great Provider, rendered Ian Rush and Dean Saunders impotent to such a degree that they managed just 13 League goals between them, and they would be unwise to count on a more regular service this time. Rehabilitation after the surgery Barnes needed to repair his damaged Achilles is a lengthy and arduous process, and he is not expected to play first-team football before Christmas.

Liverpool were prepared for that. Unforeseen, and therefore more unsettling, is the loss of Jones, laid low by a virus which has stripped more than a stone from what was always a spare frame.

Molby, who could lose that without noticing, has been left lame by a calf protesting under the strain, and McManaman is recuperating after an operation on the knee he injured during the epic FA Cup semi-final against Portsmouth.

Exit the best right-back in England, the best passer of the ball and the most gifted attacker. Unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, the sale of Ray Houghton, Liverpool's player of the season, to Aston Villa has not gone down well.

Hyperbole is Ron Atkinson's middle name, but the analogy he drew between Houghton and Gordon Strachan is a persuasive one. The Glaswegian Irishman, at 30, has enough left in those busy legs to redden Souness's face in the same way that Strachan has embarrassed Alex Ferguson.

Doubtless the plan was to replace Houghton with McManaman, some 10 years his junior, but in the absence of that endangered species at Anfield, the homegrown talent, the right flank is currently occupied by Saunders, who thought he had rid himself of that job for good when he finally parted Ian Rush and Mark Hughes in the Welsh team.

On the credit side, the acquisition of Paul Stewart, from Tottenham, will give the midfield the power base lacking since Steve McMahon's departure, Ronnie Whelan is fit again, and there is a good new goalkeeper, David James, in case Bruce Grobbelaar's eccentricities prove too costly.

The timing of the newcomer's arrival is ironic, with the outlawing of the back pass about to make Grobbelaar-style forays de rigueur, and Souness confirmed that James would have to wait for his chance. 'Bruce is still our No 1 - the best outfield goalkeeper in the world,' he said. 'James has a lot of potential, but Grobbelaar is our first choice.'

Leeds again look stronger. Stronger than Liverpool, that is. Stronger than Arsenal? Probably not.

Wilkinson's two summer signings, Scott Sellars and David Rocastle, have given him an embarrassment of riches in midfield, where he was already hard pressed to accommodate Batty, Strachan, McAllister, Hodge and Speed.

Leeds have strength in depth there, no question - Strachan is likely to edge out Rocastle today - but they must envy Arsenal's forest of centre halves (Adams, Bould, O'Leary, Linighan and Pates) and strikers (Wright, Smith, Campbell, Merson and Groves).

For the champions, much will depend on Chris Fairclough and Chris Whyte avoiding injury and the continuing productivity, in his 33rd year, of Lee Chapman, their totem-cum-target.

Leeds, with the more settled side, should win this afternoon, but whatever the outcome, it will be of minimal significance.

It is, as both managers admitted yesterday, nothing more than a glorified friendly. 'A training game' was Wilkinson's dismissive description; 'there's not too much resting on it', in Souness's estimation. Given this attitude, and its charitable context, a draw is arguably the most appropriate outcome, yet the Football Association have decided that penalties are needed this year to guarantee a positive result.

Penalties to decide charity games. What next: shoot-outs in the Premier League? Best not to jest about such things. The Great God Television would love it.

(Photograph omitted)

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