Houllier pins hopes on late salvation

Leicester City 0 Liverpool 0
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The Independent Football

Gerard Houllier did his weary best to talk up his side's performance three days after their distressing exit from European competition, but his insistence that Liverpool had deserved to leave the Walkers Stadium with all three points from this extended exercise in mutual angst was, frankly, wrong.

For all the strenuous individual effort of Steven Gerrard, who might have earned his side a win they did not deserve with a couple of long-distance efforts, the visitors looked cumbersome at the back, uninspired in midfield, where Harry Kewell appeared only semi-engaged, and uncoordinated up front.

Houllier was at pains to stress that his men had had little time to recover from their defeat in Marseille, where they had had to play for the best part of the match with only 10 men.

Liverpool were also without Michael Owen, who now finds himself not just out with the hamstring injury that forced his early departure on Thursday, but also at the centre of a swirling controversy involving the suicide of the builder with whom he was involved in legal proceedings. Houllier estimated that the England forward would be out of action for at least another 10 days.

But the harsh fact is that Liverpool have long lost their great virtue of the late 70s and early 80s, certainty, and their performance here was a thing of shreds and patches.

Both sides could draw a little comfort from this frenetic, scrappy affair, however. Liverpool moved a point clear in the fourth Champions' League qualifying place on a day when their closest rivals, Newcastle United, conveniently lost at Bolton Wanderers, while Leicester, still steadying themselves after the trauma of their recent trip to La Manga, narrowed the gap between themselves and the last place of safety to two points.

"I'm pleased to keep our unbeaten run going," said the Leicester manager, Micky Adams, who has seen his men earn a win and two draws since returning from the mid-season break which saw three of his players accused of rape, extending their unbeaten sequence to six matches. "That's a point that not too many would have given us so we've got to be pleased with it."

Nobody strove harder for a win than Leicester's little Scottish forward Paul Dickov, one of the three accused from La Manga, who responded to his manager's midweek criticism with a performance ranged from hyperactive to wild.

But while Dickov's terrier-like activities continually undermined the ponderous Liverpool defence, and in particular their goalkeeper, Jerzy Dudek, with whom he collided on several occasions, it was his colleague Muzzy Izzet who had the best chance when he slid in on a Steffen Freund cross in the second minute of injury time but stabbed the ball just wide.

Liverpool's best chance was prompted by the arrival of the substitute Danny Murphy in the 70th minute, who immediately demonstrated what his side had been missing in midfield with a determined run into the box which saw him accept a cross from Kewell and, with a neat backheel, provide Milan Baros with a shooting opportunity that was wasted through over-elaboration.

That kind of finishing has meant that Liverpool have not won an away game since they beat Chelsea on 7 January. But while those around them continue to show the same inconsistency, they have a chance of redeeming something from their season, even if it is just another ticket for the Champions' League lottery. "We are still in fourth place, and now we have eight cup finals," Houllier said. "We have got five more games at home, and three away, so our future is in our own hands."

Leicester City (4-4-2): Walker 7; Dabizas 5, Heath 8, Thatcher 7, Scimeca 7; Freund 6, Izzet 7, Nalis 5 (Guppy 6, 27), Bent 8; Ferdinand 7, Dickov 8. Substitutes not used: Coyne, Benjamin, Canero, Gillespie.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek 8; Carragher 5, Biscan 3, Hyppia 4, Traore 4; Gerrard 8, Cheyrou 5 (Murphy 8, 70), Hamann 5, Kewell 4; Baros 4 (Sinama-Pongolle, 84), Heskey 6. Substitutes not used: Henchoz, Diouf, Luzi.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire) 4.

Bookings: Leicester: Heath, Dabizas, Bent, Dickov. Liverpool: Carragher, Hamann, Baros.

Man of the match: Dudek.

Attendance: 32,013.