Heskey embraces the revolution

FA Premiership: England striker sets Houllier's new-look Liverpool heading on the right path
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The Independent Online

It is 10 years since Liverpool won the title, since when false dawns have illuminated a decade of frustration with cruel regularity. "This year is the one," has been repeated on Merseyside with growing urgency but this year they may be right. Yesterday did nothing to dilute the optimism.

It is 10 years since Liverpool won the title, since when false dawns have illuminated a decade of frustration with cruel regularity. "This year is the one," has been repeated on Merseyside with growing urgency but this year they may be right. Yesterday did nothing to dilute the optimism.

A win over Premiership cannon fodder Bradford City would have been expected even from Liverpool teams who flattered to deceive during the Nineties, and there was plenty to find fault yesterday. But you can do no better than take three points from your first fixture and they managed that thanks to a spectacular goal by Emile Heskey.

The £11m striker, who had cut a frustrating, slightly forlorn figure, exploded into the game on 66 minutes. He turned sharply, used his bodybuilder strength to lever his way past two defenders and lashed the ball into the top corner with his right foot. Now we know what the money was spent for.

"Sometimes against a pack-ed defence you need a piece of individual brilliance. Heskey gave that," Gérard Houllier, the Liverpool manager, said. "I'm pleased for him because he needs support. He is still a young player and sometimes you forget how even the best strikers were a little awkward when they started. The best of Emile is to come."

A measure of the revolution that has swept through Anfield under Houllier was laid out by the team sheet. No player remains from the end of the 1998-99 season 15 months ago. The Frenchman has spent £50m reconstructing a squad in his own image, with five new signings in the summer and a sixth, Christian Ziege, this week.

Two - Markus Babbel and Nick Barmby - started yesterday, though judging by the first half you would have thought none of the side had met before, never mind played together. The football was clueless and, despite a rousing rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone", they could not manage an attack of note in the first 15 minutes.

Even then their efforts were a wildly misdirected snapshot by Michael Owen and a more accurate half-volley by Barmby that swerved wide. In a first half of much work and little imagination, the only time the hosts came close was Vladimir Smicer shaving the post from 20 yards after 31 minutes.

Bradford have undergone a turnaround of their own, losing their manager Paul Jewell and gaining what might be a load of trouble in Benito Carbone. They quietly went about their work with surprising assurance. Doubts were expressed about the marriage of Bradford's tenacity and Carbone's mercurial talent but, initially, we had no chance to study the relationship because the Italian was confined to the bench.

Not that the visitors missed it. Playing 4-5-1, the sole striker Dean Windass linked well with Lee Sharpe in particular, and David Hopkin and Stuart McCall both took half-volleys in the first 10 minutes that had Sander Westerveld's pulse racing. Just before half-time they almost took the lead. An adroit turn by Sharpe earned space and his pass allowed Hopkin to advance beyond the rearguard. Only Westerveld's quick advance and block thwarted him.

Liverpool had to improve and within five minutes of the restart they might have taken the lead as Smicer switched flanks to scythe through the right twice. Bradford were saved by an outstanding stop from Matt Clarke and a weak header by Owen. On 51 minutes Smicer had a chance himself as Heskey came up with a pass to the left of the area. The shot was true and so was the save.

Clarke responded smartly to thwart Owen's fierce drive five minutes later, and he was fortunate when Dietmar Hamann flicked Sami Hyypia's header around the post instead of inside it from point-blank range.

The momentum was with Liverpool. Heskey should have added to his flamboyant goal when, with 12 minutes left, Smicer found his run with a cross on the left. From eight yards he needed only to avoid the keeper but his effort was little more than a back-pass. As a last act, Patrik Berger was carried off with damaged ligaments and a twisted knee.

"We had a game plan," Chris Hutchings, the Bradford manager, said. "At half-time the game was just how we wanted it. In the second half we defended too deeply and were punished by a terrific goal."

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