And then there were two. Liverpool all but bowed out of the title race yesterday with a disappointing display here. Gérard Houllier's men now require a minor miracle, most immediately a Bolton win over Arsenal tomorrow night, to stand any chance of lifting the Premiership crown. On recent form, Liverpool fans might as well tear up their betting slips right away.
The heavens opened five minutes before kick-off, prompting those who believe in supernatural omens to wonder whether something significant was about to happen. It was, although few could have predicted how easily Liverpool rolled over. "I think we could have done better," Houllier conceded. "Especially in the second half, the effort was there but perhaps we lacked a bit of sparkle. Maybe there was a bit of nerves out there, too."
The first half-hour aside, Liverpool lacked any real zest or invention going forward. Spurs, meanwhile, swamped the midfield and played some of their best football of the season. "The players were superb," said Glenn Hoddle, the Tottenham manager. "I don't see many weaknesses in that Liverpool side, but we were just better than them on the day."
Tottenham should have taken the lead inside five minutes. John Gorman, Hoddle's assistant, who was wired up with a hands-free mobile phone, looked like an agent from the special forces as he patrolled the technical area taking directives from the manager for the first half.
The conversation they shared at that moment will have contained mostly expletives. A promising Liverpool attack broke down on the right when Abel Xavier slipped, allowing Mauricio Taricco to steal possession and release Teddy Sheringham in the centre-circle. The England striker then spread the ball out wide to the right wing-back Simon Davies, who rounded Jamie Carragher with ease before delivering a pinpoint cross on to Sheringham's head. The Spurs captain nodded only inches wide.
Liverpool responded and, four minutes later, Danny Murphy floated in a dangerous free-kick which Sami Hyypia rose highest to meet at the far post. The Finn forced an excellent reflex save from Kasey Keller, who continues to keep Neil Sullivan out of the Tottenham goal. From the ensuing corner, Emile Heskey sent a looping header towards the top corner of the net, but this time Taricco cleared his lines.
Liverpool were enjoying the bulk of the possession and the greater share of the chances but, as has so often been the case this season, they were unable to find that all-important early goal. Few can question Heskey's ability, but he rarely manages to alter the course of a match. He worked gamely throughout, yet you could not help but wonder whether Jari Litmanen's clever link-up play between midfield and attack might not have been more suited to this type of close match. Instead, Liverpool stuck to what they do best: namely, sitting back and then breaking at speed. Only once, though, did Michael Owen get a sniff of a chance in the first half, when he latched on to Vladimir Smicer's ball after 20 minutes only to shoot harmlessly across the face of goal.
Tottenham were riding their luck, not least when John Arne Riise stooped low to head on to the post, but with the likes of Gus Poyet and Darren Anderton making more and more runs from midfield, you sensed the home side's opportunity might come. And so it proved when, four minutes before the interval, Anderton created space for himself on the left touchline before delivering a perfect cross to Davies at the back post. The young Tottenham player was unable to control the ball but his touch fell kindly to Poyet who scored his 14th goal of the season.
Liverpool were effectively 45 minutes away from dropping out of the title race. The players knew the importance of the second half which might explain why, rather than come sprinting out of the blocks, they looked frightened to over-commit.
Six minutes after the restart, they fashioned their only opening. Owen received the ball on the edge of the area, moved past three Tottenham defenders with a flick of his right foot, and then unleashed a shot which Stephen Clemence did well to block. From the rebound, Owen went even closer, but this time his effort was just wide of the goal. That was as good as it got after the break for the men in red.
"You have games like that when you just don't score goals," a philosophical Houllier said. "That makes you a little bit more fragile all round. But I still think the team has done tremendously well. It has gone further than last season already, and I'm sure they will be even stronger next season."
Then, with 64 minutes on the clock, came the boos. Lots of them, as the former Arsenal striker, Nicolas Anelka, came on for the ineffectual Heskey. Too little too late you felt, and it is a feature of Liverpool's season that they have not always had the courage to take the game to their opponents. Even when 1-0 down yesterday, and knowing only a win would give them any realistic chance of winning the Premiership, the visitors persisted in playing safe.
Why, for example, did Houllier not throw caution to the wind and play with three at the back for the last 25 minutes? It said much that when Litmanen was finally brought on for the last nine minutes, he replaced an attacking midfielder in Murphy.
Tottenham, for their part, were inspired by the ever-improving Davies, who should have capped an excellent performance with a goal in the final minutes. He, along with the likes of Anthony Gardner, Ledley King and Clemence, should serve Spurs well in seasons to come as Hoddle's revolution takes shape. "We're getting there," Hoddle said. "If we can learn how to finish teams off we'll make great strides next year."
It is not often the case but you can be sure that the loud cheers which greeted the final whistle at White Hart Lane were echoed at the other end of the Seven Sisters Road by the red half of north London.
Tottenham Hotspur 1 Liverpool 0
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