THIS WAS not a game, or a day, Liverpool will care to remember. With their manager, Gerard Houllier, receiving hospital treatment for the chest pains he suffered during the interval, the Merseysiders played well enough in the second half to salvage a point, but not well enough to disguise the fact that Leeds looked much the likelier to challenge for the Premiership title this season.
We should know more when David O'Leary's impressively compact team go to Old Trafford to take on the champions in another of these televised lunchtime games in two weeks, but Leeds do appear to be more advanced in their development than Liverpool, notwithstanding that trophy treble of last season. In fact, the home side had played so poorly in the first half, their manager could not have helped but feel the stress of the occasion.
Phil Thompson, Liverpool's assistant manager, praised the team for staging a revival spirited enough to produce an equaliser by Danny Murphy that stemmed directly from Robbie Fowler's one flash of inspiration. But Leeds were in control for most of the time and could quite easily have added a second goal to the one scored midway through the first half by Harry Kewell.
After expressing his regret about what had happened to Houllier, a good friend, and wishing him well, O'Leary was well within his rights to say: "I'm gutted we've not taken the three points. I felt we should have won it. Near the end, they were at the ref to blow up. That shows you they were happy with a point. Potentially, we are a very good side, and I feel we can go out now and give anybody a game."
Leeds were the more coherent and cohesive side against opponents who soon found that the ploy of playing Vladimir Smicer in `the hole' behind Emile Heskey and Fowler did not work. It meant that the wide midfielders, Steven Gerrard and Murphy, had to tuck in, while the full-backs, Jamie Carragher and John Arne Riise, did the attacking down the flanks. Leeds dealt comfortably with what few thrusts Liverpool, badly missing the recuperating Michael Owen, managed before the interval.
Leeds were not much more of a threat in a cagey, sterile opening 45 minutes that was memorable only for Kewell's goal and the bookings of Leeds' Danny Mills and Liverpool's Sami Hyypia. After 27 minutes, a left-wing corner by Ian Harte exposed the poor covering at the back post from which Leeds have profited in other games against Liverpool. On this occasion, Rio Ferdinand was allowed time to rescue the ball on the byline and loft it back into the penalty area. There, Gary McAllister failed badly to cut out the danger with his head and the centre slid off his bald pate to Kewell. Responding fiercely with his formidable left foot, the young Australian drove a shot into the far corner with the aid of a deflection off the leg Stephane Henchoz.
Liverpool were much more fluent in the second half largely because Jari Litmanen replaced Heskey, who was said to have suffered a knock on the side of the calf that threatens his chances of travelling to the Ukraine today for the Champions League match against Dynamo Kiev on Tuesday. However, the England striker was playing so badly it would have been no surprise if he had been replaced anyway.
Liverpool switched to a more orthodox 4-4-2, Smicer moving to the left and Murphy to the right, while Gerrard joined McAllister in the centre of midfield. The improvement this yielded was evident in the shots from Riise and Litmanen that caused Nigel Martyn some anxiety. Then, in the 69th minute, Fowler produced the moment of brilliance that was totally at odds with another fumbling, bumbling performance.
Turning on the ball just outside the Leeds penalty area, the little striker beat Martyn utterly with an exquisite chip. There was a huge groan from the Kop behind that goal when the ball bounced down from the crossbar, but Murphy, whom Liverpool had been about to substitute, had followed up and was ideally positioned to nod the equaliser back into the net.
It was then, though, that Leeds really showed their quality. They almost went ahead again with a swift counter, at the end of which Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek was glad to shovel Robbie Keane's flicked shot round his near post. O'Leary claimed his team should have had a penalty for Hyypia's challenge on Keane, but the TV replays showed that to be a little fanciful.
Though Liverpool sent on Jamie Redknapp for McAllister in an attempt to win the match, it was Leeds who made all the chances in the last quarter of an hour. Kewell was not far away after drifting through the middle of the home defence and Lee Bowyer nearly rounded things off spectacularly when Mark Viduka headed back Harte's deep centre and the marauding midfielder volleyed narrowly over the crossbar.
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