LIVERPOOL, priceless four days earlier, yesterday finished without any improved assets, and the loss for the rest of the season of Steve Harkness with a suspected broken leg. It left Coventry not only much better placed in their relegation struggle but in a position to influence the championship further, as they face Manchester United tomorrow.
It also left the Liverpool manager, Roy Evans, furious that the dreadful tackle by John Salako that left Harkness in hospital led to no more serious punishment than a caution. "These days you get yellow cards for kicking the ball away. You don't break legs with good tackles,'' he said.
The brilliance of Liverpool's victory over Newcastle at Anfield on Wednesday had brought comparisons with the radiance of their distant past, but they knew that only by continuing to win every match could their slim chances of the championship be sustained. Going to Coventry was never to be a lap of honour. Over the years, even when Liverpool were feared throughout Europe, visits to Highfield Road have frequently caused problems.
Yet Coventry must have watched that wonderful game on Merseyside and thought that yesterday they might be blown out of the water, especially as Richard Shaw and David Burrows were both missing, injured.
Liverpool, however, were lacking the injured Mark Wright and suspended Neil Ruddock from the centre of their defence, and were never given time to settle. Coventry hassled them for an hour, successfully diverting attention from their usually unstable defence. Liverpool seemed to forget that the one thing at which their troubled opponents were competent was going forward at pace.
And forward City went, not voraciously at first but sufficiently often to have Dominic Matteo and Harkness needing back-up from Jamie Redknapp and John Barnes. The speed of Peter Ndlovu even occasionally caught out the rapid Jason McAteer. When in the 18th minute Ndlovu neatly skipped past Harkness his cross appeared harmless, but David James failed to judge the depth of the centre and Noel Whelan managed to stretch a leg high, turning the ball back into the far corner of the goal.
Liverpool reacted by allowing McAteer to push up on the right, with all the dangers to their own security this involved. In possession again, Ndlovu sprinted past him and, after another penetrating centre, Dion Dublin ought to have taken Coventry further ahead but he stubbed his shot, allowing Harkness to clear.
Ron Atkinson's decision to omit Salako and Eoin Jess from his starting line-up was a successful gamble. On the other hand even that great taker of half-chances, Robbie Fowler, was finding it difficult to raise Liverpool's hopes, and Stan Collymore rarely made space. So by half-time Coventry were deservedly still ahead, and not conceding much defensively.
With David Busst and Ally Pickering consistently stifling Fowler, Liverpool chose to have Collymore move wide with Steve McManaman attacking centrally. Since McManaman's recent form had been irrepressible, the alteration made sense. And when Ndlovu made a rash tackle on Redknapp and himself had to be carried off, the chances of Coventry retaining their advantage receded. Atkinson reacted by bringing on Jess and Salako.
Salako was immediately in trouble with a wild, sickening tackle on Harkness, who was carried off with his legs bound together and little doubt that there was a break. The incidents inevitably clouded the atmosphere: tempers frayed and fouls increasingly pitted the game.
Liverpool's decision to risk taking off Rob Jones and adding Ian Rush to the attack, while having Michael Thomas take an attacking defender's role, resulted in the last quarter of an hour being played almost entirely in the Coventry half. There, McManaman took the dominating role that Ndlovu had enjoyed in the first. Nevertheless Coventry were stubborn and uncharacteristically effective in defence.
Collymore's work in his wide position gained strength, and with the experience of Rush and potential of Fowler supported by McManaman, the striking power of Liverpool ought to have been unstoppable. The injuries extended the game by only three minutes but in each of them Steve Ogrizovic was fully occupied blocking attack after attack. Coventry clung on and perhaps in doing so saved themselves for another season in the Premiership. Meanwhile, Liverpool will again rue their visit to this ground of sore memories.