Fowler provides cutting edge

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Liverpool 2 Derby County 1

By Robbie Fowler's own admission, he is some way below the standard of fitness and form he demands of himself. That will be received by the rest of the Premiership as an ominous warning.

Fowler's two goals, plundered in four decisive minutes early in the second half, were demonstrations of his priceless finishing ability, and secured for Liverpool a victory which Derby County's obdurate resistance threatened to deny them. The three points lift Roy Evans' team to third place, a point behind Arsenal and Newcastle with a game in hand.

Those goals removed the inhibition from Liverpool's play and in a brief purple patch it seemed they would add to the list of extraordinary scorelines currently featuring our leading clubs.

Instead, they eased back on the throttle, Derby climbed out of their bunker, and belatedly took the match to Liverpool. Ashley Ward pulled back a goal two minutes from the end and, with greater self-belief, the visitors could have salvaged an improbable point.

A draw would, however, have flattered Derby, who in common with so many over the years, came to Liverpool unashamedly intent on boarding up their goal and hoping fate would present them with a bonus on the break.

The first part of the plan was intact until the 47th minute and Fowler's first strike, simply because Liverpool did not wield the cutting edge to complement their possession and patient build-up.

Fowler patently lacked his characteristic zip, and without that Liverpool were impotent. That much was evident within two minutes. John Barnes pushed a perfectly weighted pass into the path of Patrik Berger, who lashed the ball wide. Russell Hoult, Derby's goalkeeper, was given little more anxiety by Steve McManaman and Phil Babb. He was not to be tested until the 21st minute, when he turned away Stig Inge Bjornebye's free-kick.

Fowler, foiled by Chris Powell's excellent tackle, at last found the time and space he craved and curled a left-foot shot towards the far corner. Hoult could only parry and the chance beckoned for McManaman, yet he placed his shot along the line and off the far post.

Scavenging is Fowler's business, as he reminded us two minutes into the second half. Liverpool worked a corner from the right to Berger, whose fierce 25-yard shot proved too hot for Hoult to hold. This time Fowler was lurking and this time the opportunity did not get away.

Fowler, growing in confidence, climbed to meet a centre from John Scales as Liverpool denied Derby time to recover. The ball eluded Paul McGrath but not Fowler, who directed a powerful header left of Hoult.

Derby's first genuine attempt on goal, by Ward, materialised after 55 minutes and David James was not unduly troubled. Darryl Powell should have given the Liverpool goalkeeper a sterner examination as Derby sought consolation. That was to come despite James's best endeavours. He beat out Ward's initial shot but was powerless to deny the striker from the rebound.

Jim Smith, the Derby manager, said: "Liverpool are the best side we've played. Whoever comes higher than them will win the league."

Goals: Fowler (47) 1-0; Fowler (51) 2-0; Ward (89) 2-1.

Liverpool (5-4-1): James; McAteer, Scales, Matteo, Babb, Bjornebye; McManaman, Thomas, Barnes, Berger; Fowler. Substitutes not used: Collymore, Redknapp, Ruddock, Kennedy, Warner (gk).

Derby County (5-4-1): Hoult; Laursen, Rowett, McGrath, Stimac, C Powell; Willems (Flynn, h-t), Dailly (Simpson, 85), Asanovic, D Powell (Carsley, 74); Ward. Substitutes not used: Yates, Taylor (gk).

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).

Bookings: Liverpool: McManaman. Derby: Dailly, Rowett, McGrath.

Man of the match: Fowler Attendance: 39,515.