Rampant Liverpool still learning their trade Evans down-to-earth about young high fliers

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The Independent Online
T welve points behind with 15 matches to play: races have been won from Liverpool's position, but they are usually followed by a stewards' inquiry and a dope test.

A consensus is emerging that Newcastle can only blow it now. There are those who use such phrases in the hope of putting the Premiership leaders through the mental mangle. Others wonder, in the wake of recent cup defeats, whether Newcastle are quite the thoroughbreds their status suggests. They also point to a run-in that includes trips to Anfield, Highbury, Elland Road and Ewood Park.

Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, is not as practised as, say, Manchester United's Alex Ferguson in the art of the soundbite calculated to intensify the psychological pressure on a rival camp. A graduate of Bill Shankly's Boot Room, which is traditionally a bullshit-free zone, he evidently puts a low priority on media mind games.

Evans' assessment of where Liverpool's 5-0 rout of Leeds United left them placed in the championship stakes was typically down-to-earth, far removed from the brash machismo of his predecessor, Graeme Souness. "Newcastle are still in the driving seat," he said. "They've got to slip up and we have to keep going."

Some argue that Newcastle lack the nous necessary to prevent their doing a Devon Loch. In fact, the management team of Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott have experience to spare, most of it gleaned at Anfield, while Liverpool, like Newcastle, fielded only one player with a winner's medal on Saturday.

But there is another reason that may explain why Evans was not banging the drum for Liverpool's prospects. Put simply, they are not yet the finished article. Perverse as it may sound after another landslide victory, the overall performance of what is basically a young, developing team fell below championship quality.

For almost half an hour they carried negligible threat. Then, as Howard Wilkinson complained later, Carlton Palmer should have cleared into "the back row of the stand". Instead he tried to dribble in defence, leading to a corner which Neil Ruddock headed in.

The Yorkshire contingent's response was a sardonic chant of "Wilko for England". Funnily enough, the Leeds manager's verdict on the first 45 minutes, in which David James admittedly made three good saves late on, was exactly the kind for which Graham Taylor used to be pilloried. "At half-time," he said, "I was nearly very pleased."

By full time, however, Leeds had capitulated on Merseyside for the second time in three weeks. On this occasion there were mitigating circumstances, if not an excuse. Gary Kelly's dismissal and the resulting penalty ended the match as a contest just after the hour.

Liverpool exploited the extra space well, especially the laddish duo of Stan Collymore and Robbie Fowler. Their burgeoning understanding must have impressed the watching Terry Venables, who has still to resolve England's striking problems. "The more I see of Stan and Robbie the more excited I get," Evans said. "There's something between them that wasn't there at the start of the season."

Both got on the scoresheet before Ruddock's final flourish produced a result the bookies rated an 80-1 shot. But the turning point, irrefutably, had been Kelly's trip on Rob Jones. "Rob's never scored, so if Gary had left him he'd probably have missed," Ruddock quipped. Leeds, down to 10 men for the second week running, had missed the joke.

There could be no disputing Paul Durkin's decision to point to the spot. No matter that it did not come into the category of the cynical professional foul; the right-back's foot took Jones rather than the ball. The referee was also obliged to banish Kelly - the last defender - which is not to say the rules should not be revised to allow officials to exercise discretion.

Then, of course, managers would carp more bitterly than ever about inconsistency. Wilkinson, true to form, waxed rather more philosophical. "The courts say you can't be done twice for the same offence," he said, and it was difficult to disagree. At least justice of the poetic type was served by what, incredibly, was Liverpool's first penalty this season. Last August, in a game settled by a wondrous Tony Yeboah goal, Collymore was cut down and injured by John Pemberton. David Elleray gave a goal kick.

Since their three opening wins, Leeds have taken 26 points out of 60, raising their game tantalisingly against Manchester United but otherwise drifting. Mark Beeney looks no less error-prone than John Lukic in goal; the defence cries out for a leader of Ruddock's authority; and it was as sad to find Tomas Brolin watching the ball fly over his head as it was bizarre to see Lee Chapman toiling like a ghostly presence in one of those computer simulations that combine different eras.

Yeboah and the Coca-Cola Cup may yet redeem their season. But the harsh truth is that Wilkinson has failed to challenge for the title since winning it in 1992. Liverpool, whose six-year wait is an eternity by their standards, are at last pushing and may have made our friends in the north-east more anxious still had Evans not lost his most creative midfielder, Jamie Redknapp, during the losing run known locally as "Black November".

Redknapp, happily, is on the mend and played in the B team on Saturday. Welcome as his return would be for club and country, it might be too little, too late to prevent Newcastle from making it a black-and-white May.

Goals: Ruddock (27) 1-0; Fowler (pen 61) 2-0; Fowler (68) 3-0; Collymore (89) 4-0; Ruddock (90) 5-0.

Liverpool (3-4-1-2): James; Scales, Ruddock, Babb; McAteer, Barnes, Thomas, R Jones; McManaman; Fowler, Collymore. Substitutes not used: Rush, Matteo, Pears (gk).

Leeds United (4-3-1-2): Beeney; Kelly, Wetherall, Palmer, Worthington; McAllister, Ford, Speed; Brolin (Deane, 72); Wallace, Chapman (Couzens, 63). Substitute not used: Beesley.

Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).

Sending-off: Leeds: Kelly.

Bookings: Liverpool: Ruddock. Leeds: Brolin.

Man of the match: Collymore.

Attendance: 40,254.

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