Liverpool became the third leaders of the Premiership yesterday and left the destination of the championship as unclear at 5pm as it had been in the morning. Faced with the need to take maximum points to keep up with the pace, they kept their heads to conquer Derby with relative ease and caused the Midlanders to be relegated in the process.
It was not – and this is becoming a cliché – a vintage performance by Liverpool, but if you want team for the trenches you could not do much better than them. Uninspired for much of the afternoon, they were as resilient as concrete at the back and when you have Michael Owen at the other end of the team anything is possible.
The England striker, who was presented with the European Footballer of the Year award before the game, scored twice yesterday to take his tally for the season to 27 and although he, too, was some way short of his stellar best, his afternoon embodied that of Liverpool: too good for game but limited opponents.
"On a good day, Michael could have had two more," Gérard Houllier, the Liverpool manager, said, "but let's appreciate that after the disappointment of Bayer Lever- kusen, he got a vital goal at Sunderland, showed he can be an inspirational captain for England and scored two more for us today."
Superman had worse weeks than that and no one appreciated the art of a good striker more than Derby, who had to win to give themselves any chance of escaping a season in the First Division. They worked prodigiously and had the lion's share of the possession, but when they came close to goal they were left wanting, something that has dogged them all season. Yesterday's squad had managed only 17 goals between them, a damning statistic if ever there was one.
A few weeks ago, Houllier was counting down the matches to greatness, a mantle postponed by Bayer Leverkusen's win in the Champions' League, and it was a symptom of the fickleness of his trade that Liverpool began the match knowing a defeat would probably mean they would be without a trophy at the end of the season.
If the pressure was bearing down on them, they disguised it wonderfully and might have been ahead within 30 seconds. A delightful through ball from Vladimir Smicer split the Derby defence, and with Nicolas Anelka and Danny Murphy moving in towards the ball, Andy Oakes raced off his line to get there first.
Anfield sat back to await the slaughter and it came as a surprise when Derby's riposte came immediately. Lee Morris, not for the only time, bamboozled Jamie Carragher and if his cross had been more accurate, Malcolm Christie would have given the leaders a surprise lead. Instead the ball sailed harmlessly past.
Eight minutes later, Oakes had to spring to his side's rescue again when John Arne Riise's header sailed perilously close to Owen's swinging boot. Again, the Derby goalkeeper just won the race.
Owen does not need many opportunities, however, and the latest England captain gave his side the lead after 15 minutes. Dietmar Hamann and Smicer ricocheted passes to him and his turn was so sharp that Chris Riggott was powerless to do anything as the ball rebounded off him and back into Owen's path. With only Oakes to beat, it was a formality and he lifted the ball into the corner of the net.
A goal ahead, Liverpool were happy to rest on their advantage for the rest of the first half and they surrendered ground in the hope of catching their opponents on the break. Instead, it was Derby who nearly made more of their extra possession when Morris headed down Warren Barton's cross and Branko Strupar might have equalised if he had controlled his volley.
That scare underlined Liverpool's need to put the points beyond Derby, but they only had themselves to blame for not securing the match in the 15 minutes after half-time.
A delightful chip from Carragher was too high for Owen but the chance came back with an extra layer of gilt when Derby's clearance bounced in to Anelka's path. The French striker finishes off opportunities like this without thought in training but this time he was high with his shot. After 56 minutes, Anelka was given another opportunity by Steven Gerrard's clever first-time pass, but his shot was a foot wide of the post.
Even Owen became embroiled in this bout of striking inefficiency when he judged his run to perfection and reached Anelka's flicked header five yards ahead of the Derby defenders. A goal surely? This time, Owen chose power instead of stealth and his volley sailed over the bar.
Such profligacy might have proved costly when Jerzy Dudek spilled Paul Boertien's shot seven minutes from the end, letting it fall into Christie's path. The Derby striker stabbed at the ball and was unfortunate when it bounced off the goalkeeper, hit another defender and ended up in Dudek's arms.
You sensed that was Derby's last throw and Owen confirmed it in the last minute. Emile Heskey's pass put him ahead of the Derby backline, he went around Oakes and, from a narrow angle, shot into an empty net.
"Three games to play," Houllier said, reflecting on what is to come. "Who knows? We are ready for it." Goodbye Derby. Hello another week of anticipation at the top.Reuse content