Gerard Houllier admitted "Our defensive frailty betrayed us," adding that the club's chances of getting into Europe had become "very difficult". He would not be drawn on why, on an afternoon when England's manager, Kevin Keegan, was at Pride Park, he did not include in his squad Steve McManaman who last week signed a contract with Real Madrid, whom he joins next season. "There was no problem," Houllier said briskly. "With the changes we had to make in today's game he would not have played anyway." Michael Owen was taken off at half-time in order not to worsen a slight injury, and Steve Staunton had a back problem that cost him much of the game.
McManaman's unexpected absence meant that Liverpool badly needed Vegard Heggem and Dominic Matteo to compensate by moving forward to give width, but a lot was left to Owen and Robbie Fowler's furrowing down the middle. That quickly and promisingly saw Owen slip past the comparatively towering Igor Stimac and Spencer Prior without finishing his work. Derby responded with the strength of Burton and Wanchope increasingly to bother Rigobert Song and Phil Babb. With Paul Ince missing through injury, Francesco Baiano reaped space and time in midfield.
Burton had only just grazed the post when Derby again pressed Liverpool back into uncertain defence. In the 11th minute Lars Bohinen's corner was not covered and Burton rose above Staunton, Babb and David James to head a goal that inspired a 10-minute period of intense Derby pressure including a threatening shot from Baiano that James could only watch as it brushed the bar.
Only a 40-yard run by Patrik Berger in that early period seriously troubled Derby; so much so that Stimac held him on the edge of the penalty area. For a moment Stimac wondered whether the card would be red rather than the yellow shown. At least Berger's initiative brought Liverpool into the game.
Owen's ingenuity against physically stronger defenders was never less then brave, and it ought to have brought Liverpool a 25th-minute equaliser. After his long run and shot that Russell Hoult parried, Fowler was unable to stretch out far enough to reach the rebounding ball. Nevertheless, Owen soon compensated when making another impressive dash past hapless missed tackles bar the one of Prior which finally brought him down in the penalty area. Fowler slammed in the kick with venomous relief.
In a match of growing intensity but with Derby always having the edge in midfield - a poor reflection on Jamie Redknapp on an important day to impress the new England chief - mistimed tackles grew in pace. In the 43rd minute it was not surprising that a free-kick, given when Bohinen was fouled, led to Stimac lobbing the ball deep into the penalty area. Wanchope glanced in a fine header.
With Owen limping before half-time and not appearing for the second half, Keegan was left watching only Fowler and trying to spot Redknapp. But at least Redknapp drew some attention to himself with a drive that had Hoult leaping to touch the ball away for a corner. For spectacular self- promotion, however, there was no one to beat Wanchope who, in the 49th minute, ran on to a free-kick from Bohinen and blasted in a ferocious shot as he galloped into the penalty area.
If Derby thought they had taken the tension out of the game they were proved wrong even after Baiano had hit the post and Bohinen had his attempt at slicing in the rebound cleared off the line by Matteo. The knife edge was sharpened again when Matteo moved unopposed upfield and clipped the ball across the mouth of the goal. Typically, Fowler was there to tuck it over the line.
Yet the lack of height in the Liverpool attack remained a hardship. Over the last 10 minutes, when Berger's influence behind Owen's replacement, Karlheinz Riedle, and Fowler became more conspicuous, there was never a moment's serious worry for the Derby defence in the air.
On the ground it was a different matter, although Fowler's deft twisting and turning more often than not lost defenders but culminated in shots that lost sight of goal. Derby's finishing, especially through Wanchope, was always the more reliable, and as ever Derby were never found wanting in supporting each other or being hugely supported by a record crowd.Reuse content