McManaman breaks blue line

FA Premiership: Liverpool winger impresses England coach with two-goal show as favourite spearhead strikes again
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The Independent Online
Chelsea 2

Spencer 9, 45

Liverpool 2

McManaman 33, 76

Attendance: 31,137

TWO goals by the immaculate Steve McManaman, under the watchful eye of the England coach Terry Venables, cancelled out two by John Spencer for Chelsea and edged Liverpool up to third place, a point closer to an inactive Newcastle United at the top of the Premiership.

McManaman might even have made it three goals and three points, such was his virtuoso display, but then again Spencer could also have had a hat-trick, hitting a post with a late chance in an exciting final flurry that belied much of the ordinary play that preceded it.

How Liverpool needed McManaman's inspiration with Stan Collymore and Robbie Fowler mostly subdued by the vigilant Michael Duberry and David Lee. They were frustrated for long periods, banging their heads against a blue wall as Chelsea packed 10 men behind the ball.

Theirs is parasite football. As if playing a European away leg every week, they wait to suck in the opposition and play on the break. Fortunately, Liverpool came to Stamford Bridge willing to make the pace. Had they not done so, we might hardly have had a contest.

Each time Chelsea scored, they retreated to hold what they had rather than seek a sealing two-goal margin; one reason for their feeble scoring record. Ironically, each time Liverpool equalised, the home side emerged from their caution to create the better chances. Perhaps they might have shown a more confident approach had the suspended Mark Hughes been playing.

"You have to get the balance right," explained the Chelsea manager, Glenn Hoddle. "We keep one up front when we defend and push five forward when we attack. It's important that the supporters keep patient, we know what we are doing. We needed to pass the ball better today. We cleared the ball from one end to the other too much. We need to get the ball down and pass it through midfield."

Admirable though many of those sentiments are, it often became tedious watching Liverpool take to the dance floor without a partner willing to tango. It might even have been worse had Chelsea not scored an early goal.

An excellent one it was too. Paul Furlong, deputising for Hughes, played the ball wide to Dan Petrescu on the right and the Romanian immediately curled in a cross which Spencer met just ahead of Mark Wright to volley into the roof of David James's net from six yards.

Gradually, however, Liverpool began to assume a control of midfield with Michael Thomas and John Barnes instigating the keep-ball routine. In addition, McManaman and Rob Jones found plenty of space on the left where Petrescu found Ruud Gullit unable to offer much defensive help.

Chances resulted. McManaman's through ball found Fowler, who dragged his left-footed shot across goal, and the same player was just wide with his right after Jones had played the ball into him. Soon after, Harkness drove in a shot which Dmitri Kharin pushed aside for a corner, which Liverpool played short. Barnes worked the ball to Jason McAteer and, after Fowler had appeared to divert his cross with a hand, the ball arrived at McManaman's feet on the edge of the penalty area. Crisply and precisely, he drove a half-volley into Kharin's left corner and Liverpool were deservedly level.

Chelsea had scarcely been seen as an attacking force since their goal, but parity pricked them anew. Gullit sent Furlong clear, James saving at his feet, and Spencer also found himself free only to over-run the ball. Just before half-time he made amends, however. Eddie Newton's hooked ball forward from midfield dropped between John Scales and Harkness, who slipped, and Spencer nipped in to tuck the ball past James.

Chelsea retreated into their shell again in the second half. Patiently, Liverpool picked and probed but, unable to get behind the Chelsea defence, were often reduced to long shots of hope rather than expectation. Two from Jones and Thomas were well turned aside by Kharin.

It needed a McManaman moment, which duly came. A good run and shot almost produced it but Kharin was again the equal. Then, when Thomas played a ball in to Collymore, who laid it off to McManaman, the goalkeeper could do nothing about another unerring shot from the edge of the penalty area into his left corner.

"On his day he is going to look outstanding," said the Liverpool manager Roy Evans of McManaman. "But he needs people to set him up. He didn't have that in the first half but we were more patient in the second."

Now, maddeningly, to make one wonder what they might achieve should they sometimes lead rather than follow, Chelsea came out in some style. Wise headed Gullit's cross just wide, Gullit himself snatched at a volley enabling James to save and Spencer, put through by Newton, saw the goalkeeper turn his low shot on to a post. But a winning goal for the home side would have been an injustice, however and it was McManaman who was thwarted late on by Kharin's dive at his feet.

Liverpool deserved something from the game and the Premiership needs to see them and their brand of adventurous passing play at, or near, its peak.