Houllier casts caution to wings

Liverpool 2 Leicester City 1
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The Independent Football

This season has had a few surprises already but few have been as eyebrow-raising as how Liverpool are playing. Forget the side who made paint-drying an attractive alternative in the dreary days of last winter, they now embody the one word you would not have used to describe them no matter how much you admired their more prosaic qualities: exciting.

It is as if the penny has dropped for manager Gérard Houllier, who resented the less than flattering notices but has now done something about it by spicing up his team with attractive attackers. As a result they are getting the results to add to their finesse, this being their third win in succession.

Harry Kewell, bought from Leeds in the summer, has made an obvious difference by adding threat to the left but El Hadji Diouf's resurrection on the opposite flank as a player who can bewitch and beat opponents has added balance. Add Vladimir's Smicer's re-emergence as a central midfielder and the whole mood of the team has changed.

Driven by the excellent Steven Gerrard, who orchestrated everything from just in front of the back four, Liverpool deserved a wider margin than Marcus Bent's late effort for Leicester gave them. In the end Emile Heskey's goal, against the club he invested more than £100,000 in when they were in financial trouble last season, proved decisive.

"Emile has to use more of his assets, which are speed, power and the ways he can strike the ball," Houllier said. "Maybe he is going through a crisis of confidence but he can't have more backing than he gets from me. I like him, he's a lovely boy. He's not a nasty person, you're not going to change that but I think that goal will put him on the scoresheets again. It will give him a lot of confidence."

Heskey, who was bought from Leicester for £11m in 2000, owed his place in the team to the broken ankle suffered by Milan Baros at Blackburn last week, a win that also cost Liverpool Jamie Carragher. Leicester, fresh from an emphatic win over Leeds, kept an unchanged side but where they had luxuriated in the space at the Walkers Stadium, yesterday they found themselves crammed into their own half as Liverpool drove forward.

Much of this impetus came from Gerrard, who acted like an air-traffic controller spraying passes to either wing, where Diouf and Kewell probed at the flanks. At first the visitors withstood this scrutiny well but when Kewell had a volley stopped only by Ian Walker's sharp dive to his right after 13 minutes it marked a change. Suddenly Liverpool were making deep inroads and Owen was denied only by a fluke save by the Leicester goalkeeper, who found the ball in his hands only after it had bounced off his feet.

Leicester's luck was unlikely to last and it ran out in the 20th minute. First Michael Owen, his feet moving with the dexterity of a tap dancer, tried to wriggle through and when he was halted by a lunge from Gerry Taggart, Smicer took over. Taggart's challenge on the edge of the area might have been illegal, but Ben Thatcher's definitely was and the referee, Mark Halsey, was pointing to the spot before the Czech bounced off the floor. Owen, who had hitherto scored twice this season from the penalty spot, calmly sent the ball to Walker's left as he dived in the opposite direction.

Leicester improved after the interval and for a 15-minute spell it was their midfield that looked the stronger. Nearer to goal the play was less edifying, however, and it was Liverpool who always looked to have the sharper edge.

So it proved when Heskey made the score 2-0 after 74 minutes. Diouf, who at times tortured Leicester's defenders with his unpredictable darts, cut in from the right and chipped in a low cross that was aching for someone to make contact. Heskey duly supplied that touch, stretching out a long leg to divert it into the corner.

The game was all but sealed except for a goal in the 90th minute when Bent's perfect connection from Brian Deane's head-on briefly raised home blood pressure. "Don't call us cautious," Houllier said with a smile. "Even at 2-1 we were trying to get a third goal."

Liverpool 2
Owen pen 20, Heskey 75

Leicester City 1
Bent 90

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 44,094