Football: McManaman illuminates grey night in Europe for Liverpool
Thursday 02 October 1997
The reactions of the supporters after Liverpool had beaten Celtic in the Uefa Cup told their own story. The home hordes slipped away quietly from Anfield, relieved to have won on the flimsy premise of away goals; the visitors stayed to applaud their team raucously.
A goalless draw did not include Wednesday among Anfield's glory nights in Europe and although Liverpool are through to the second round the tie unveiled many of the failings that have beset Roy Evans' team. Good on the counter-attack, they labour when they undertake the more painstaking task of unpicking a massed defence.
Twenty-one points were dropped at home in the Premiership last season and Leicester have already won at Anfield this time round. Stop Steve McManaman and Liverpool struggle to find other attacking avenues, which makes their seeming willingness to sell him to Barcelona six weeks ago more surprising. Without his elusive dribbles they would be an ordinary side.
Celtic failed to halt his twisting incursions into their flanks, but with Robbie Fowler anonymous and Michael Owen ineffective they got away with it. If Simon Donnelly had not missed an open goal, if Stig Inge Bjornebye had not halted Morten Wieghorst's drive on the line, the reflections at Anfield this morning would have been grave.
To deal with the pluses first. Phil Babb, not Liverpool's most applauded player, was commanding in central defence while Bjornebye and Rob Jones had the steadiness of the Grenadier Guards in the face of repeated attacks down their wings. It was behind and in front that the problems lay.
David James has had an outstanding season in the League so far but whenever he faces a game of any importance his composure is questionable. His flapping let the title fly away last spring and on Wednesday two missed crosses could have halted a Uefa Cup run. How much longer Liverpool can tolerate the goalkeeper's dubious dependability is debatable.
In midfield Paul Ince did not impose himself. When he played for Manchester United "the Guv'nor" had his most anonymous nights in Europe and on Wednesday he did little to alleviate the impression that he has problems against more skilful players. Graeme Hick, the cricketer, was once famously described as "a flat track bully" and it could be that Ince can now only prosper when the conditions favour him. He apologised for his performance in Glasgow and he will hardly be crowing about the second leg either.
Neither will Liverpool. "We will have to play a lot better if we are going to win the competition," Evans said afterwards and, with the likes of Internazionale, Ajax and the holders, Schalke, lying in wait in the later rounds, he is right.
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