Football: Mooney brings Anfield to earth

Liverpool 0 Watford 1
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The Independent Online
THE SENSE of shock was more profound because it was so unexpected. Liverpool's supporters had come to embrace a new era, a new start and the first home game of a spanking new season. They sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" with earnest and unfamiliar vigour and a man outside Anfield was selling a fanzine with the words "Paul Ince's ego eclipses the sun" shouting from the cover. The past was being swept away with a gusto.

It should have been a bracing start against a side nominated as the Premiership's closest thing to cannon fodder; instead Anfield watched with accelerating dismay as eager hopes unravelled. It was dismal to witness for the non- committed, so for those who invest their dreams in Gerard Houllier's rebuilt team it must have been truly horrible.

These columns have lambasted the Liverpool of recent seasons whose ability to turn talent into frustrating failure was legend, but you left Merseyside on Saturday night with a growing nostalgia for players who had underachieved on a grand scale. No-one should underestimate Watford's tenacity in wresting their first League win from a trip to the former fortress but the opposition were little better than a shambles. The unlamented team of Ince, McManaman, McAteer etc would at least have attacked the Hornets with a growing intent, this lot did not manage a shot on target throughout the second half.

Houllier, whose position as manager will not withstand many fiascos of this nature, was as morose as anybody. "Apart from the early stages I did not recognise my team today," he said, and the sporadic booing that broke out as they left the pitch suggested the paying public had difficulty identifying this side as a side to win trophies as well.

The problems? The spine of the side had been ripped out with injuries to Michael Owen, Dietmar Hamann and Stephane Henchoz, but even with these mitigating factors they were manifest. A left-back is urgently required, centre- back Sami Hyypia barely won a ball in the air, Titi Camara gave Robbie Fowler scant support up front and Jamie Redknapp disappeared. Add an ankle injury to Vladimir Smicer that will keep him out him for three weeks and you could sense the gloom descending.

"We had four players who are discovering the Premier League," Houllier said of Hyypia, Camara, Smicer and goalkeeper Sander Westerveld, "and although they have the quality to settle in it is a matter of time and you don't get much of that in football. We know that." After spending pounds 25m in the summer the Frenchman has less than most.

"I was annoyed because the quality of our play deteriorated as the game went on," he continued, "but that is because the players wanted to do well, make things happen, and get the equaliser instead of playing their usual game. When we passed quickly and moved we created chances."

Liverpool did precisely that at the start and if Patrik Berger had scored after 33 minutes when Robbie Fowler put him clear the tone of the afternoon would have altered radically. When Chris Day saved with his legs, however, the belief in the home players dribbled away.

To give Watford their due credit, they helped them on their way. Tommy Mooney preyed on familiar Liverpool defensive disarray in the 16th minute and after that no cause was too distant to chase. Robert Page and Mark Williams were massive presences at the back and with Micah Hyde doing the running of two men in midfield, the prospects of an equaliser dimmed by the minute.

Indeed if Mooney had not had not squandered two opportunities late in the game and Rigobert Song not cleared off the line from Hyde's chip, Liverpool's embarrassment could have been significantly greater. No Watford side have even taken a point at Anfield before but no Watford side have ever worked harder. Their first points in the Premiership after two defeats were richly deserved.

It was something acknowledged by the home supporters who applauded Watford off the pitch. "It put the icing on the cake for me," Taylor said. "It's something I'll always remember about that game. It was a special moment. It was a great credit to them.

"A lot of people have said you have to beat the teams who will be around you to survive in the Premiership but I don't see it like that. There are three points at stake in every match and if you can get a scalp like we have today it sends a message to everyone."

The message for Watford is that survival will be hard but not impossible; for Liverpool it is that pre-season optimism might be misplaced. Certainly callers to various radio phone-ins seemed to think so.

The eclipse being viewed on Saturday night was not caused by "the Guvnor's" ego but Liverpool's shortcomings.

Goal: Mooney (15) 0-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld; Heggem (Song, 81), Carragher, Hyypia, Matteo; Smicer (Riedle, 72), Gerrard (Thompson, 57), Redknapp, Berger; Fowler, Camara. Substitutes not used: Staunton, Friedel (gk).

Watford (4-4-2): Day; Lyttle, Williams, Page, Robinson; Hyde, Palmer, Johnson (Eaton, 52), Kennedy; Ngonge (Foley, 70), Mooney. Substitutes not used: Gudmundsson, Bonnot, Walker (gk).

Bookings: Liverpool: Thompson; Watford: Page, Mooney, Williams.

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

Man of the match: Hyde.

Attendance: 44,174.