TWO GOALS in the space of 13 first-half minutes laid the foundations of a comfortable Liverpool victory. There was so little tension that, at times, you wondered if the crowd had nodded off, perchance to dream of another day when Manchester United, who borrowed the leadership from Gerard Houllier's team for a few hours, and Arsenal, who reasserted their right to be considered championship favourites, would be more obliging.
One of Liverpool's strengths is that key men have a habit of emerging from their ranks and Vladimir Smicer has taken his turn of late. First, having contributed just one Premiership goal to the first seven months of the season, he stroked a glorious late winner against an undeserving Chelsea last Sunday. But that was less of a surprise than the source of his crucial opening gambit here: the legendary Smicer forehead, which in truth he tends to use merely as a casing for a considerable footballing brain.
Liverpool's second was more orthodox, being pinched from close range by Michael Owen, and thereafter Charlton offered next to nothing in the way of a threat to an unbeaten record now stretching to 13 matches: a span during which Liverpool's defence have been breached a mere three times. They are clearly determined that, if there is to be a wire, they will go down to it. When you remember their powerful finish to last season, culminating in the triumph at Charlton that secured a Champions League place, you would not bet against them.
While we are on the subject, I reckon that before this you could have made a few bob by betting only on Charlton matches. The tactic would have been to look at the fixtures, decide what was likely to happen - and then back the opposite. Alan Curbishley's men have lost at home to Everton, Blackburn and Bolton (not to mention Walsall in the FA Cup) and won at Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. Maybe this was a bit too far north for them.
They met a Liverpool side spiced by the return after more than two months of Patrik Berger, who was preferred to his Czech Republic colleague Smicer despite the latter's delicious volley in the previous match. Smicer, though, had only 18 minutes to wait before rising from the bench to replace the injured Emile Heskey with dramatic effect.
Once the news had filtered through that Arsenal had scored early, not once but twice, the bulk of the crowd had become quiet, as if aware that no slip could be afforded; or maybe it was just that the football was so poor, at least from Liverpool, who were disjointed and tentative until they made the breakthrough. Some credit for this, admittedly, had to be awarded to Charlton's organisation, even though Jorge Costa flirted with danger when he appeared to nudge Owen just after the England striker, chasing a through-pass from Dietmar Hamann, had entered the penalty area.
The next time Charlton impeded Owen, the laws were undoubtedly broken. And full punishment was imposed. After Chris Bart-Williams' foul from behind had persuaded Dermot Gallagher, who always cautions with an air that exudes more sorrow than anger, to bring out the yellow card, Danny Murphy swirled the ball in from the left and, having travelled farther than Curbishley would have approved, it was met by Smicer, whose header fairly raged across Dean Kiely into the far corner of the net. Yes, Smicer, a man whose previously recorded aerial prowess had never led him to be confused with his 6ft 7in compatriot, Jan Koller. But any giant, Heskey included, would have been proud of that goal.
There was more to come. When Nicolas Anelka, out on the right, pulled the ball back to the edge of the area Smicer shot; it would be more accurate to state that he tried to, but even his rare miskicks seem to carry the Midas touch at the moment and this one found an unmarked Owen, who poked home, in classic predatory manner, his 15th goal in 24 league matches this season.
Charlton's poor marking at set-pieces was emphasised as Owen, rising to Berger's corner, guided a header away from Kiely only for Jason Euell to clear off the goal-line. Seconds later, the goalkeeper was diving to turn behind a resounding drive from Jamie Carragher. Liverpool were more confident now. But hardly impregnable; from Euell's superb dipping volley, Jerzy Dudek took off to demonstrate the blend of agility and concentration that has made him a significant asset to Liverpool.
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