Francis plan frustrates Liverpool

Liverpool 0 Tottenham Hotspur 0 Attendance: 40,628
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NO BUILD-UP to a new season is complete without it. This is the one, people say, when Liverpool are going to rediscover the formula that made them the game's dominant force in the Seventies and Eighties. It happened, as usual, at the start of this season, but six years after Liverpool were last the champions of England, those predictions look like being confounded again.

For Liverpool to maintain what hopes they had of catching Newcastle, they surely had to come through tests like yesterday's. But in Tottenham Hotspur they were up against a supremely well-organised side who did much more than stand firm against waves of attacks. As a result Liverpool slipped from second to third and are now looking at a gap of 11 points to the Premiership leaders, Newcastle, having played one game more.

It took a manager of Gerry Francis's acumen to see that even as Liverpool were establishing the run of seven wins and three draws they took into the match, they were far from invulnerable.

"I watched them a lot on video and teams have tended to let them have the ball,'' Francis said. "I was determined not to let that happen.'' Although Liverpool had the majority of the possession, it was never for long spells and through sheer hard work Spurs refused to allow them to indulge themselves by building from the back in the way they like to. As Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said, Spurs had settled into a rhythm before his own team had got going and were therefore all the harder to break down. Liverpool had a good last half-hour, but Spurs remained dangerous throughout and created arguably the two best chances.

With Stan Collymore and Robbie Fowler having shared 34 goals between them this season, and Chris Armstrong and Teddy Sheringham weighing in with only one fewer, the prospect of the match remaining scoreless was slim. But in the end they were upstaged - chiefly by Gary Mabbutt, the veteran Spurs central defender whose cool-headedness in the face of some intense Liverpool pressure was exemplary.

At 34, in his 14th season at the club, Mabbutt might be expected to be winding down. But his age has obviously been no barrier to meeting the fitness demands Francis places on his players, and experience does the rest. Two of Mabbutt's contributions were vital: a first-half block that thwarted Collymore, and a tackle on John Scales in the second half as the Liverpool defender moved up to augment the attack, a time when Spurs looked as if they just might buckle.

Armstrong was the best of the forwards, and a Liverpool defence that lacked the suspended Neil Ruddock lived on their nerves whenever he had the ball. Only two outstanding saves by David James prevented Armstrong from making the breakthrough, in the 53rd minute when he met Andy Sinton's cross with a superb header, and three minutes from the end when he cut into the penalty area and drove a shot that was heading towards James's top right-hand corner.

Collymore could point to many more shooting opportunities, and from the best of them Ian Walker struggled to hold on to a fierce drive midway through the second half. But the Liverpool midfield lacked the vision to open Spurs up, and with Steve McManaman flitting in and out of the game, Jason McAteer failing to make his crosses count, and Fowler in one of his more subdued moods, Anfield had to endure an afternoon of frustration.

The Spurs team that Darren Anderton will return to is still looking in excellent shape although his recovery from injury received a setback when he suffered a thigh strain on Friday and was forced to miss yesterday's reserve match against Luton.