Owen covers over cracks

Fortress Anfield remains the goal as Sunderland do level best to expose Liverpool frailties
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The Independent Football

Gerard Houllier believes that if Liverpool are to win their first Championship since 1990, Anfield needs to be restored into the fortress it once was. On the evidence of yesterday's draw, the club record of 85 unbeaten home games, including 63 in the League, set between February 1978 and January 1981, remains a very distant prospect.

Gerard Houllier believes that if Liverpool are to win their first Championship since 1990, Anfield needs to be restored into the fortress it once was. On the evidence of yesterday's draw, the club record of 85 unbeaten home games, including 63 in the League, set between February 1978 and January 1981, remains a very distant prospect.

Peter Reid, who watched Liverpool from the Kop as a child, was clearly the happier of the two managers after the game, having watched his Sunderland team pick up their first away point of the season. "Coming here is never easy and, in the end, we might have left with all three points," he said. "We were unlucky."

Ultimately, though, it is the England head coach, Kevin Keegan, who will be most pleased, as both Kevin Phillips and Michael Owen, two of his possible strikers for the World Cup qualifiers against Germany and Finland next month, were on target. Only the prospect of Emile Heskey having to face a knee operation will have dampened his day.

It was Owen who looked most likely to score early on, as he caused the visitors problems with his speed. A clever ball by Christian Ziege over the top of the Sunderland defence in the second minute almost led to Owen's seventh goal of the season, but the 20-year-old could not direct his shot.

Liverpool's domination was short-lived, though, as Sunderland quickly settled. The centre-back partnership of Jody Craddock and Emerson Thome found the measure of Owen, while Don Hutchison, returning to one of his former clubs, and Darren Williams took control of the midfield, passing and tackling with impressive accuracy. Meanwhile, Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn were taking the game to their opponents. Liverpool were rattled.

Their cause was not aided when Heskey, having picked up yet another of his niggling injuries, had to be substituted after just 10 minutes.

Surprisingly, Houllier opted for Danny Murphy over the fit-again Robbie Fowler, who had scored five in a reserve match in midweek. The change did not help Liverpool and it came as no surprise when the visitors took the lead after 14 minutes. Hutchison won possession in midfield before delivering an inch-perfect pass to Phillips. Eight seconds, a mazy run and 40 yards later, and the ball was in the back of Liverpool's net; Sander Westerveld left helpless as the Premiership's top scorer last season fired past the goalkeeper from 25 yards out.

Liverpool regrouped, and, following a few choice words from the assistant manager, Phil Thompson, started to play the football expected of them.

Bernard Diomede was most dangerous. Operating down the left flank, the France international was putting Sunderland under increasing pressure until, embarking on yet another probing run, he was body-checked by Chris Makin after 32 minutes. Ziege stepped up to take the free-kick; Owen rose at the far post to head the ball home, and Liverpool had the equaliser they barely deserved.

The goal did give the home side renewed confidence, though, and Diomede, who helped Les Bleus win the World Cup in France two years ago, came closest to giving Liverpool the lead with a spectacular overhead kick, which Thomas Sorensen did incredibly well to scramble away from the Sunderland goalmouth.

Liverpool worked hard in the second half, but Houllier will be concerned that his expensively assembled team are relying more on brawn than brain. A sound defence is important, but an enterprising attack is crucial. Too often, Liverpool relied on the long ball, rather than the crisp one-touch passing of which they are capable.

"I was disappointed," Houllier admitted. "We didn't play well in the first part of the first half and, more seriously, we dropped points in our race to catch Manchester United."

Scoring goals is proving a problem, too. Owen apart, Liverpool are relying almost entirely on contributions from their midfielders. And so it proved again, as their best chance of the second period fell to Jamie Carragher, who toe-poked Rigobert Song's curling right-foot cross when he had plenty of time to pick his spot.

Minutes later, Phillips should have won the game for Reid's team. But, having escaped Song's attentions, he blasted his shot high into the crowd. He, and Sunderland, deserved better.

In the end, not even the welcome return of Fowler, 18 minutes from time, could turn the tide for Liverpool. Houllier's team had dropped their first points of the season at Anfield. Two points that could prove costly come May.

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