Football: Reds still a ghost of Christmas past

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The Independent Online
Liverpool 2 Sheffield Wednesday 0

PALPITATIONS ON the bench and periods of anxious silence in the stands provided testimony that the Liverpool renaissance remains a fantasy for a Christmas yet to come.

But, for management and supporters alike, this humble offering will suffice as a Christmas present, warding off as it does the humiliation of the club's worse sequence in 44 years.

Gerard Houllier's repeated claims of grounds for optimism meet with growing scepticism on Merseyside, and the patience of the natives would surely have snapped after a ninth defeat in 12 games.

Instead they were served with a deserved if unspectacular victory, Liverpool summoning enough quality from the archives in 15 vibrant and destructive first-half minutes to expose the frailty of Sheffield Wednesday's much vaunted resurgence.

That Liverpool then reverted to the sterile football which has characterised more recent times was confirmation that no seasonal miracle had been worked. A kind of balancing act had been accomplished. This latest evidence suggests that Liverpool are a slightly better than ordinary side, and Wednesday an ordinary one.

It all depends on your aspirations, of course. For Wednesday, "ordinary" represents no small achievement in the Premiership. At the start of the season, and only a few weeks ago, they were considered relegation fodder. Now they look likely to hold their own in the upper league.

Benito Carbone, all impish skills and elusive spins, brings the propensity for the unexpected, the rest supply dependable, functional stability. On another day Andy Booth might have headed them back into contention: on this day he looked like another willing but ordinary player.

The one man who might dance to Carbone's tune, of course, is his countryman Paolo Di Canio, who is eligible for a return to active duty on Boxing Day but chose to make his way on to the missing persons file rather than Wednesday's training ground.

By common consent, Liverpool have been missing a dominant central defender for some considerable time, but on Saturday the back three coped relatively comfortably with Booth and generally managed to keep even Carbone at a safe distance.

They will meet distinctly more menacing attacking forces, and Steve Staunton in particular will not always be as fortunate as he was on this occasion. Wednesday were simply incapable of exploiting his now familiar lapses.

Although Paul Ince is a player of limited means, the midfield is a resourceful and potent department when Jamie Redknapp steers its course, while Patrik Berger is an important source of goals. His right-foot blast which produced the opening for Liverpool was something of a collector's item.

Michael Owen effectively put the match beyond Wednesday with Liverpool's second, but this was a strangely fleeting performance by the 19-year-old, and the attack is still a tantalising conundrum for Houllier. Robbie Fowler, his other striker, had one of those afternoons that challenge your recollection of the swaggering youngster who scored goals and destroyed defences for fun.

He scuffed a first half chance and squandered two more in the second when he could have spared Houllier and Phil Thompson all that touch-line torture.

The restoration of a fully fit, committed and focused Steve McManaman - or a direct replacement if he is to leave - would give Liverpool another dimension that would also help to lift them above that sad, "slightly better than ordinary" category.

Their overall problem is their inability to sustain the intensity of their football through a full match - or even half a match.

Fifteen minute spells of explosive football are insufficient to see off better teams than Wednesday and bring back some much missed fame and glory to Anfield.

Had Wednesday managed a goal in the second half the entire stadium would have been a bag of nerves. But as it is Houllier has a welcome breather. There will be more tests and perhaps more palpitations to endure in the weeks and months ahead.

Goals: Berger (18) 1-0; Owen (34) 2-0.

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Carragher, Staunton, Babb; Heggem (Kvarme, 82), Redknapp; Ince, Berger, Bjornebye; Fowler, Owen (Riedle, 87). Substitutes not used: Friedel (gk), McAteer, Thompson.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Srnicek; Atherton, Thome, Walker, Hinchcliffe; Alexandersson (Briscoe, 58), Sonner, Jonk, Rudi (Humphreys, 85); Carbone, Booth. Substitutes not used: Clarke (gk), Stefanovic, Magilton.

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street). Bookings: Liverpool: Bjornebye, Berger. Sheffield Wednesday: Hinchcliffe.

Man of the match: Redknapp.

Attendance: 40,003.