DAVID O'LEARY can talk all he likes about the draining effect of strains and suspensions, of the lingering aftermath of trials and other tribulations, but the reason his 11 players surrendered so embarrassingly at Elland Road yesterday was that Liverpool wanted victory more. Leeds lacked heart and art.
In falling to their biggest defeat here in 22 months, in faltering again to Premiership rivals, Leeds were undermined by a litany of mistakes that littered the pitch like discarded crisp packets. Liverpool were good, counter-attacking like cheetahs, seeking and exploiting any weakness, but Leeds were awful, either careless or clueless in possession.
Leeds' lifelessness was encapsulated in the 54th minute when Lee Bowyer, normally so determined, lost the ball; rather than chase back, the midfielder lay on the ground watching red shirts disappear upfield. His subdued mood contrasted starkly with the indomitable Steven Gerrard, who set the tone with a shuddering first-minute challenge on Olivier Dacourt. "We showed our intent from early on," said Phil Thompson, Liverpool's caretaker manager.
Liverpool began in a huddle, Leeds in a muddle, and nothing much changed. Thompson's men were a team united, every player covering for each other, every player working overtime at closing down or breaking out. If the ubiquitous Gerrard deserves lavish praise for what Thompson termed his "massive influence", Stephen Wright, 21, also impressed with his taming of Harry Kewell, whose frustrations at his team's incompetence led to him flicking a momentarily jettisoned boot at the referee, Graham Poll. He was booked and substituted within seconds.
Like Wright and Gerrard, Michael Owen also excelled, tracking back and breaking forward with equal gusto. What makes Owen's phenomenal individual talent so special is that he applies it so selflessly for the team. He richly deserved his last-minute goal which followed Rio Ferdinand's own-goal opener and Emile Heskey's double.
After a solitary goal in 34 games for club and country, Heskey has now managed three in two. "I keep having to champion Emile's cause," said Thompson. "He was outstanding for us when we went top of the League but people said he wasn't scoring. He never hides. Emile and Michael work well in tandem. Their partnership with Liverpool could tip the balance in their favour for England."
Thompson clearly felt awkward uttering these words, knowing that it might be perceived as criticism of Robbie Fowler, who had no chance to impress against his former club. But England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson will have seen for himself how well Liverpool's little-and-large alliance worked yesterday. "They caused Rio Ferdinand and Dominic Matteo all sorts of problems," said Thompson.
Leeds caused themselves many problems, beginning in the 16th minute when Matteo fouled Heskey and Ferdinand diverted Danny Murphy's free-kick past Nigel Martyn. The Leeds keeper then produced a marvellous tip-over to thwart Owen, but shortly after the hour Heskey came calling, striking like lightning - twice.
Gerrard's pass to release him was a delight, though Heskey looked offside as he raced through, rounded Martyn and shot home. Then Wright flicked on John Arne Riise's corner, Owen headed down and there was Heskey hooking in from eight yards. The humiliation was completed in the final seconds when Heskey nodded on Wright's long throw for Owen to hit the bar and then, reacting quicker than anyone, head in. "Boring, boring Scousers," chanted Liverpool's fans ironically.
Gerrard smiled at the accusation of Liverpool being a one-dimensional counter-attacking side. "We've had a lot of stick, saying we're boring, but hopefully they [the critics] will have seen this game and changed their minds," he said. Thompson agreed, adding: "That performance was not bad for a `boring' side."
Liverpool's able caretaker has taken offence at his side being labelled "counter-attacking" as if this legitimate form of footballing strategy was somehow wrong. Building on a good goalkeeper, organised defence, a hard- working midfield spiced with one international-class striker and one world-class striker, Liverpool are quite right to focus on feeding the ball to Heskey and Owen quickly.
A little bit more flair in midfield, particularly out wide, would be welcome but third place in the Premiership is hardly disappointing, especially with Houllier not expected to return from his convalescence for a month at least.
"Liverpool play a certain way and scored from three set-plays," said O'Leary. "We made life very easy for them; there was shocking marking for their last two goals. There are lots of games left but we're losing too many players [to injury and suspension]."
Thompson observed that the result "will be devastating" for Leeds but added: "It's a blip; they're too good a team to worry too much about it." Some Leeds fans are beginning to worry; O'Leary even mouthed the words "go home" to one supporter who had been berating a side sliding to a third defeat in four Premiership games.
"The fan was just giving his opinion about the team," said O'Leary. "I think we'll get that many more times." Particularly if they continue to perform as poorly as this.
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