Football: Molby's mastery exposes Palace

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Liverpool . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6

IT WAS a harsh lesson. 'We had more corners than them and more shots on goal,' Alan Smith, the Crystal Palace, manager said. 'The difference was that David James made saves that First Division goalkeepers don't make.'

He described Palace's defensive work as horrific and praised the sharpness of Liverpool's finishing. But the real weakness, which was cruelly exposed, lay in midfield. As Smith said, the game 'is about what you do when you don't have the ball'.

Liverpool arrived in south London with a lot to prove as a team after a poor build-up to the season and with Mark Wright and Julian Dicks missing from the defence following their public dispute with their manager, Roy Evans.

Jan Molby had a lot to prove personally. He had been sidelined with a calf injury for eight months, but was so masterful in midfield, so accurate in his angles of attack, that he might have been to NASA during his lay-off and had navigational computers inserted in his feet.

With Jamie Redknapp alongside, the Dane was dominant, while Ray Wilkins, on his debut, tried to direct a Palace midfield which looked happy only when in possession and gave Molby far too much time and space.

Smith joked about being 'Terry Venables' Christmas tree - with all the presents on it', but there was not much for Palace to laugh about, especially as the early victims of a five-goal belting by Liverpool last season were Swindon.

What a start back in the Premiership] Six goals against, two new signings injured - Wilkins (foot) and Andy Preece (trapped nerve) - and a third, Darren Pitcher, undone by a bobble of the ball. It tricked him into releasing Robbie Fowler to score Liverpool's third goal on the stroke of half-time just as Palace were showing signs of coping.

Molby had opened the scoring with a penalty harshly awarded after Simon Rodger tangled with Rob Jones, and then the Dane, trimmer but still resembling the 'before' in a slimming ad, used a precise side-footed pass to send Steve McManaman scurrying away on a 60-yard run for a superbly executed goal that made it 2-0 after only 14 minutes. McManaman, switching wings with John Barnes at regular intervals, posed a constant threat.

Fowler used the outside of his left foot to bury his chance from the edge of the area, and although Chris Armstrong rewarded Palace's pace on the ball with a precise headed goal from a Dean Gordon cross after the restart, Liverpool were able to score almost at will. Ian Rush buried two headers virtually unchallenged, and McManaman claimed his second after Redknapp was allowed the time for a second attempt to cross.

Evans was not about to get carried away with Liverpool's performance, even though it showed cohesion, purpose and all-round quality. They are still not championship material, and after all, they looked good last August and five years ago put nine past Palace.

Goals: Molby pen (12) 0-1; McManaman (14) 0-2; Fowler (45) 0-3; Armstrong (49) 1-3; Rush (60) 1-4; McManaman (69) 1-5; Rush (73) 1-6.

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Martyn; Pitcher, Young, Coleman, Gordon; Salako, Wilkins (Bowry, 80), Southgate, Rodger; Armstrong, Preece (Dyer, 26). Substitutes not used: Wilmot (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; Jones, Nicol, Ruddock, Bjornebye; McManaman, Redknapp, Molby (Thomas, 86), Barnes; Rush, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Harkness, Steensgaard (gk).

Referee: R Hart (Darlington).