Heskey's double destroys Leeds

Leeds United 0 Liverpool 4
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The Independent Online

Robbie Fowler would not have relished facing the club where he was once called God, but he could scarcely have imagined a humiliation such as this. He was virtually the last to leave the pitch and it was not until then that he turned and applauded his former supporters, perhaps in the realisation that in the space of three weeks and four games, Leeds' championship aspirations had turned to dust, while Liverpool's have been reborn.

Phil Thompson, who has now steered Liverpool to within two points of Manchester United, thought this might be a "blip" for Leeds but in truth David O'Leary's side have been stuttering ever since they returned to the top of the Premiership on New Year's Day. Since then their return has been one point from 12 and elimination from the FA Cup amid the bottles and coins of Cardiff.

For a side that has gone £60m into debt on the basis that this money would be recouped by regular exposure in the Champions' League, this morning's Premiership table makes for jittery reading. A side of their class is perfectly capable of retrieving lost ground very quickly but the fact remains that Leeds are now sixth, half-a-dozen points adrift of a Champions' League place, with their injury list not yet cleared and suspensions mounting up.

A month ago, O'Leary looked the man to spoil Sir Alex Ferguson's farewell season just as Don Revie had ruined Sir Matt Busby's goodbye in 1969. Today, he might just settle for fourth place and the back-door into the Champions' League.

So much of what has hurt Leeds in recent months has been self-inflicted and so it was yesterday. Liverpool took the lead via an own-goal from Rio Ferdinand who deflected Danny Murphy's free-kick, intended for Steven Gerrard, past his own goalkeeper. Two further Liverpool goals were due to individual defensive errors that shocked their manager.

"Phil is bound to say Liverpool played well and it was an exceptional result," O'Leary reflected. "But you know how this side plays and we can't give three poor defensive goals away. We gifted them three goals from set-plays and made life very easy for them."

Just as they had at Old Trafford last month, Liverpool challenged their opponents to break them down, a task Leeds found beyond them to such an extent that when Michael Owen headed in Liverpool's fourth deep into stoppage time, the team in white shirts had long since mentally run up the white flag.

It was not for want of tactics from their manager. O'Leary withdrew Harry Kewell from his position wide on the left, switching him up front to support Fowler and Mark Viduka, who had scored four times on Liverpool's last Premiership visit to Elland Road.

It was to no avail. Kewell had been thoroughly neutralised by Stephen Wright, who celebrates his 22nd birthday on Friday, and gave a very mature performance at right-back, a position that has caused immense problems at Anfield since Markus Babbel was afflicted by a debilitating viral infection in August.

"People will say that Harry Kewell is not fully fit, but he is outstanding and it was very difficult for Stephen," Thompson said. "He has got great courage, stuck to his task and by the end Harry didn't know whether to go inside or outside him."

In the end, Kewell was hauled off, kicked a loose boot away (for which he was booked) and saw his manager turn his back on him as he approached the dugout. Five minutes after making his tactical adjustment, O'Leary saw Emile Heskey double his tally of Premiership goals for the season and take the match beyond reach.

The first was set up by Gerrard, who from the moment he tangled with Olivier Dacourt in the opening seconds of the match was the day's outstanding figure. Heskey may have been in an offside position as he ran on to a through pass struck with the outside of the right boot, but the much-criticised striker showed an exemplary touch, taking the ball round Nigel Martyn and clipping it into an unguarded net.

The 63rd minute brought more shakes of Yorkshire heads as John Arne Riise's corner was nodded across by Wright and crashed in on the volley by Heskey, allowing Liverpool's assistant manager, condemned for placing his trust in him rather than Fowler, to return to a favourite theme.

"I keep having to champion his cause and I shouldn't have to if people knew football a bit better," he said. "Even when he wasn't scoring the goals, Emile has played an exceptional part in our triumphs. Emile Heskey never hides, but because he doesn't score he doesn't get too many mentions."

The same cannot be said of Owen. Even when Liverpool were counter-attacking, their tactics ensured they had five in defence to insure against a breakaway but, by the end, Leeds were so ragged that it barely mattered. Instead, a long throw from Wright was flicked on by Heskey and headed against the bar by Owen, who had ample time to deal with the rebound and inflict Leeds' heaviest defeat since they were beaten 4-0 by Arsenal in the wake of the trauma of seeing two fans killed in Istanbul.

Fowler, standing perhaps 50 yards away, could only watch. A couple of Liverpudlians had unveiled a banner with the words: "Forget God, We've Got St Michael." On yesterday's evidence, Fowler will be remembered at Anfield but not mourned.

Goals: Ferdinand og (17) 0-1; Heskey (61) 0-2; Heskey (63) 0-3; Owen (90) 0-4.

Leeds United: (4-4-2) Martyn 5; Kelly 4, Ferdinand 5, Matteo 4, Harte 4; Kewell 4 (Keane 6, 73), Dacourt 6 (Wilcox 5, 57), Batty 6, Bowyer 4; Viduka 4, Fowler 5. Substitutes not used: Duberry, McPhail, Robinson (gk).

Liverpool: (4-4-2) Dudek 7; Wright 8, Henchoz 6, Hyypia 6, Carragher 6; Hamann 5, Gerrard 8 (McAllister, 89), Murphy 6, Riise 6; Heskey 7, Owen 6. Substitutes not used: Abel Xavier, Smicer, Anelka, Arphexhad (gk).

Referee: G Poll (Tring) 7.

Booked: Leeds Matteo, Kewell. Liverpool Carragher.

Man of the match: Gerrard.

Attendance: 40,216.