Vialli's men self-destruct Thompson turns up trumps for Liverpool as Desailly and Wise pay penalty for ill-discipline

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The Independent Football

ANFIELD HAS become less a fortress and more a drop-in centre for the disadvantaged like Watford as well as the titled like Manchester United. Another defeat yesterday and they would have been inscribing a new legend in the Liverpool chronicles: worst home sequence for 87 years.

ANFIELD HAS become less a fortress and more a drop-in centre for the disadvantaged like Watford as well as the titled like Manchester United. Another defeat yesterday and they would have been inscribing a new legend in the Liverpool chronicles: worst home sequence for 87 years.

That Gérard Houllier avoided that ignominy was because Liverpool profited from the transgressions of a Chelsea side who had two players sent off: Marcel Desailly, for too bookable offences, and their captain, Dennis Wise - the ninth red card of his career - following an elbow on the Czech midfielder Vladimir Smicer. The Londoners capitulated with ill-discipline and ill-grace.

In all, Mike Reed issued seven cautions to players from both sides as the volatility of the occasion consumed any prospect of an aesthetic spectacle. The fury inside the Chelsea manager, Gianluca Vialli, who increasingly vented his displeasure at Reed, had largely subsided by the time he appeared, briefly, for a post-match debate. "We accept the referee's decisions," he snapped, before departing, claiming he had a train to catch.

Beforehand, few would have argued against Chelsea storming Houllier's Bastille, not least the Liverpool manager himself. He deployed a five-man midfield behind the lone striker, Michael Owen, with the intention of denying Vialli's men the chance to capitalise on the break. "Chelsea are a difficult side to play against," Houllier said. "They have good balance, skill and fluidity. They wait and as soon as you make an error they kill you. We have beaten a team that is better than us."

History also decreed that Chelsea, who have recorded just one win here since 1935-36, would struggle to inflict another victory. Once the game was transformed from a sedate first half, in which the the visitors weaved clever patterns without threatening Brad Friedel's goal, into an impassioned encounter, there was little likelihood of them bucking the trend.

It was ironic that Chelsea's composure should dissolve in the aftermath of Frank Leboeuf's pronouncement on brutality and the fact that he was a marked man. French beef, in the guise of Leboeuf and Desailly, had an occasional nasty taste to it, and there could be no real criticism of Reed as he issued cards like a pontoon croupier.

Yet the malevolence was by no means directed one way and the spectacle of Leboeuf hobbling off after a late challenge from Owen - the sainted one shamefully turning to laugh at him as his victim lay prone on the touchline - suggested that he might have had a point.

Yet, on an afternoon when the footballers of 12 foreign nations should have had us drooling, this served to advertise the virtues of young England talent. While Chelsea always possessed the more electric touch and vision, it was two Liverpool youngsters, Danny Murphy and David Thompson, both England under-21 internationals, whose vitality and dedication to the cause caught the eye.

Indeed, it was the latter who scored the winner four minutes after the break following a first half in which Liverpool had been almost in trepidation of their illustrious opponents. Small wonder with Chelsea having inflicted a 5-0 victory against Manchester United a fortnight ago. It was Thompson's first goal of the season, and a man more accustomed to scoring, Owen, should have added another from the penalty spot. His kick, though, endangered the Kop spectators rather than the Chelsea goalkeeper, Ed De Goey.

Vialli had made 11 changes from the side defeated 1-0 in the Worthington Cup by Huddersfield and the fact that his team boasted the best defensive record in the Premiership - just three goals conceded - boded well. But they deteriorated as the game progressed and Friedel was tested far too infrequently by Sutton, Zola and Co.

It was midway through the first period before Liverpool appeared capable of breaching that resolute rearguard, Murphy achieving the rare distinction of nutmegging Desailly, before finding Leboeuf obstructing his path.

Jamie Redknapp, never one to spurn a free kick from whatever range, was clearly in the mood for another spectacular attempt following his 30-yard match-winner for England against Belgium. If anything, the distance of his first-half drive was even greater; yet he only cleared the bar by inches with de Goey motionless.

The home fans, who had waited with commendable patience for 45 minutes, were soon rewarded after the restart, though it was a goal not so much out of the training manual as borrowed from the Sunday park. Steve Staunton drove his free kick into a congested goalmouth and the ball fell to a grateful Thompson, who could scarcely miss from such close range.

It was the prelude to a frenetic burst of activity, not all of it well-intentioned. When Graeme Le Saux entered the contest, replacing Leboeuf, there was a cacophony of abuse, with the crowd needing no reminder of his contretemps with the injured Robbie Fowler at Stamford Bridge which earned the striker a lengthy ban. Presumably just to enliven things, Le Saux had already gestured towards the Kop with his backside while warming up.

Owen had the chance to put the result beyond question when given a chance from the spot after Desailly had felled Murphy on the edge of the box and been sent off. Owen's miss gave Chelsea the invitation to retaliate. Tore Andre Flo replaced Zola and might have equalised. But then Wise received his dismissal and, with his exit, Vialli's men knew their fate.