Houllier falls victim to stress and strain

Liverpool 1 Leeds United 1
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The Independent Online

On such a day, recording the minutiae of what turned out to be a mostly forgettable contest becomes almost superfluous. Dubious refereeing decisions, deflected goals and one team's disappointment at missing out on three points, in this case the Premiership leaders Leeds, is rendered virtually irrelevant.

Even as we witnessed Liverpool stage a bold second-half revival, there was a significant presence missing: the raincoated figure of Gérard Houllier exhorting his team with all those Gallic gestures that have become so familiar. When the reasons for his absence became apparent, it will have evoked, for many, memories of the fate of Jock Stein, who died of a heart attack during a Scotland game at Ninian Park. Or, more recently, Joe Kinnear, who was taken ill before a Wimbledon contest at Sheffield Wednesday.

Last night, Houllier was undergoing surgery and will obviously not travel with his squad to Ukraine for Tuesday's Champions' League game against Dynamo Kiev. His illness will inevitably create uncertainty about his managerial career, though if he wishes to seek inspiration he will look towards the former Anfield captain Graeme Souness, now manager of Blackburn, who has recovered from serious heart surgery.

One of the Frenchman's friends in the game, the Leeds manager David O'Leary, revealed that the pressures of the game had been a source of conversation between the pair beforehand. "Funnily enough, we had been having a laugh and a joke about our ages," O'Leary recalled. "Gérard said to me: 'I'll tell you something. This game has changed. Keeping 20 very rich, young people happy all the time ­ that can be bad for your health'. He looked absolutely fine then and this has shocked me. I just hope he's fine. He's a lovely man and a lovely person, with a lovely wife. I'm sure he'll make a speedy recovery."

The half-time team-talk which Houllier was able to issue before suffering chest pains had followed one of Liverpool's most indifferent periods of play all season. The Worthington Cup defeat by Grimsby had been one thing; this, if anything, was grimmer. In the first half, Leeds' rearguard strangled the life out of the Liverpool attackers, who fashioned not one serious opportunity between them.

There is almost an intuitive understanding between the Leeds back four, who included Dominic Matteo ­ back at the club which allowed him to leave ­ and Rio Ferdinand, who displayed no lack of confidence after his unconvincing performance for England last Saturday. As a cohesive unit, they are beginning to bear an uncanny similarity to the Arsenal back line in which their manager once featured. However, just as against Greece in that woeful first half, Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler singularly failed to produce the guile to trouble the visiting defence.

O'Leary had been concerned about "the beast ready to come out of the traps against us" after that Grimsby reverse, and also Leeds' double over Liverpool last season. But in the first half the beast was still licking its wounds. As Liverpool's Phil Thompson said: "It was not a classic by any standards. There weren't too many chances for either side. And in the first half, our passing was not good. There were too many unforced errors."

In contrast, O'Leary's men combined to produce neat, precise passing, with Olivier Dacourt outstanding as the conduit for most of Leeds' best movements. Though Robbie Keane and Harry Kewell constantly troubled Liverpool's defence, the end result was disappointing, with only a fierce drive by Eirik Bakke to boast before the visitors broke through before the half-hour.

When the goal arrived it had more than a touch of fortune about it, but it was not unmerited as a reward for Leeds superiority. Ian Harte's corner was not adequately cleared by Liverpool and when it was retrieved by Ferdinand on the far byline, he looped the ball back into the heart of the home defence. Gary McAllister effected a weak header which fell to Harry Kewell, and although the Australian's firm angled drive was heading for goal, it required a deflection off Stéphane Henchoz to beat Jerzy Dudek and find the far corner of the net.

At that stage, there was a sense of resignation around Anfield that appeared to temporarily afflict the players' self-belief. They were well aware that Leeds yield goals with parsimony.

Yet, whatever the nature of Houllier and Thompson's interval galvanisation, it had its desired effect in the Frenchman's absence, to-gether with the introduction of the Finn Jari Litmanen as a replacement for the injured Heskey as a foil for Fowler. Leeds' early swagger was less pronounced as Steven Gerrard, back after a three-match suspension, began to assert himself.

It was the England midfielder who instigated Liverpool's equaliser with a firm forward pass to Fowler, whereupon the captain turned and dispatched a splendid effort which struck the bar. As Leeds, for once, hesitated, Danny Murphy reacted quickest to head past the stranded Nigel Martyn.

Leeds retaliated immediately and Keane complained bitterly that Sami Hyypia's arm had prevented a scoring chance. But overall, the goal tended to inspire malevolence rather than goalscoring chances. Liverpool's Gerrard and Murphy were cautioned, adding to Hyypia's first-half booking, while Leeds' Bakke and Mills went into referee Alan Wiley's book.

However, in five minutes of added time it was Leeds who came closest to victory, with Harte's deep cross being headed back for Lee Bowyer to steer just over the bar. In truth, though, anything more than a point would have been unkind to Liverpool after a battle of attrition in which both teams displayed too much respect for the other. But, as the home faithful wended their way home, their minds were on other matters.

Liverpool 1 Leeds United 1

Murphy 69 Kewell 27

Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 44,352

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