Francis draws solace from realism

Liverpool 0 Tottenham Hotspur 0
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Liverpool 0 Tottenham Hotspur 0

Moments after Jimmy Armfield left the Anfield press-room following his stint as a radio summariser, Gerry Francis breezed in. A pity their paths did not cross, for Tottenham's tactically astute display might have prompted the FA's managerial trouble-shooter to ask: "Can't I twist your arm over the England job?"

Liverpool's resurgence had made them a bad advertisement for the winter break favoured by Armfield's masters at Lancaster Gate, as well as turning what is traditionally Spurs' most troublesome fixture into something tantamount to a World Cup qualifier in Rome. Francis's game plan, and his players' capacity to carry it out, meant they never remotely resembled the sacrificial southern softies of old.

Spurs did not, admittedly, send neutral spirits soaring as did their FA Cup victory last March, when Jurgen Klinsmann struck a stunning late winner. But then New Liverpool are a vastly different proposition, buoyed by the dream ticket of Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore and, before Saturday, fancied themselves to push Newcastle.

Francis, the first realistic candidate to declare himself a non-runner to succeed Terry Venables, set out to curb the crimson tide at source. Yet Spurs' ambitions went beyond stifling the supply to Liverpool's front two. They also exposed them defensively with surprising frequency, due in the main to a prodigious performance by Chris Armstrong.

With the Premiership's two most prolific duos in opposition - 67 goals between them - sod's law dictated that an otherwise absorbing encounter would be barren. It was not for want of trying by Armstrong, the least vaunted of the quartet, who compensated for a lack of Klinsmannesque charisma with lung-bursting endeavour and no little skill.

To prevent Liverpool building their customary momentum from the back, Francis deputed the one-time burger-packer from Wrexham and Teddy Sheringham to be a vigorous first line of defence. Armstrong still found time for eight scoring attempts; one header drew a breathtaking save from David James, who also went full stretch to deny Armstrong's drive after a unilateral counter-attack from his own half with 90 seconds left.

Spurs' centre-backs, Gary Mabbutt and Colin Calderwood, were equally influential, managing to make Fowler appear jaded and to restrict Collymore to long-distance shooting. Not until stoppage time did Liverpool work a good close-range chance, which Jason McAteer put wide.

A goal then would have been rough justice for Spurs, who had also worked tirelessly to nullify the wild-card surges of Steve McManaman. Hustled out of it in midfield, Liverpool tried to attack down the flanks, only for Rob Jones to look what he is - a right-footed full-back operating on the left - and McAteer to labour in vain. Whatever happened to Mark Kennedy?

"We feel we've got to win more or less every game," admitted Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager. "There's more pressure on us than on Newcastle." His team were, he felt, half a yard short of their usual pace after their exertions at Villa Park. This week, while Kevin Keegan can prepare at leisure, Liverpool face a potentially fraught FA Cup tie at Shrewsbury.

Title-tattle was not even on the agenda for Francis, who has an even trickier replay to negotiate at Wolves. Next year, if Alan Sugar can be persuaded to bankroll the next stage in the rebuilding of Spurs - new full-backs, perhaps, and a more creative force in centre-midfield - it could be different.

The Spurs manager's parting shot revealed a balance between pragmatism and bravado that might have impressed Armfield and would translate well to the international stage. "If you're disappointed to be coming away from Anfield with a draw," he mused, "you've done quite well."

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Scales, Wright, Babb; McAteer, Barnes, Thomas, McManaman, R Jones (Rush, 84); Fowler, Collymore. Substitutes not used: Redknapp, Warner (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Austin, Calderwood, Mabbutt, Edinburgh; Fox, Campbell (Nethercott, 75), Wilson, Sinton (Rosenthal, 90); Armstrong, Sheringham. Substitute not used: Day (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Liverpool: Jones, McAteer. Tottenham Hotspur: Sinton, Edinburgh.

Man of the match: Armstrong.

Attendance: 40,628.