LIVERPOOL'S CHAMPIONSHIP campaign stumbled conclusively on Gerard Houllier's unlucky ground; it was his fourth visit in sole charge of Liverpool and the predatory prowess of Gustavo Poyet dictated that the Frenchman, when he returns next season, will still be looking for his first point.
But, in truth, bad luck had nothing to do with it. Tottenham's victory was earned, not stolen. When Glenn Hoddle's team play well, they can trouble the best and here they bade their home support farewell for the summer with a display that was both solid and, when circumstances permitted, stylish.
They were nevertheless relieved when Michael Owen missed opportunities before and after the goal that made Poyet Spurs' leading Premiership scorer with 10 in his first season at the club - overall he has 14, one fewer than Les Ferdinand - and proved "the dividing line between the teams" as Hoddle put it.
Houllier concurred, saying of his players: "The effort was there, but maybe we lacked a bit of spark." He added that they had already improved on last season's 69 points - by five, with Blackburn and Ipswich yet to visit Anfield - and reiterated that, with a little more time and a few reinforcements, they could "go that stage further". He declined to discount the possibility of Arsenal throwing away the title now. "You never know in football," Houllier recited. But Liverpool are left with only one realistic ambition: to finish second and thereby avoid playing in the preliminary rounds of the Champions League.
Their first defeat in 15 league matches came in the absence of Steven Gerrard, whose groin problem, we gather, falls a long way short of qualifying as a new England scare. But Sven-Goran Eriksson, who was watching, did not have his best day at the office, even lately. Of the six England candidates on view, the best was Darren Anderton, whom Eriksson appears to have discarded, although Teddy Sheringham and Owen hardly disgraced themselves.
In midfield, Danny Murphy was outshone by Simon Davies, while Stephen Clemence, back after a prolonged injury, gave a performance that Eriksson would have been justified in noting for future use. At the back, Ben Thatcher and Anthony Gardner earned Hoddle's praise.
Spurs are ending Hoddle's first full season with a less geriatric look than they began it, even if it was their 34-year-old Uruguayan who secured this result. Their fans' only complaint was that it put an extra spring in their deadliest foes' step to the title.
The entertainment had been most acceptable. Right from the start, when Sheringham shot high and headed wide, it was eventful and the wonder was that 40 minutes elapsed before we saw the goal.
Liverpool responded to those early scares in a style that made you question whether you were at the right Lane; more Plough than White Hart was the aerial bombardment they launched, beginning with Sami Hyypia's set-piece header, touched over by the alert Kasey Keller only for the ensuing corner to be met by Emile Heskey, whose glance of the head beat Keller but not Mauricio Taricco, waiting on the line.
Phew! But there was no respite. From Didi Hamann's deep cross, John Arne Riise nodded against a post. Soon, Vladimir Smicer, with a typically subtle touch, fed Owen and now, it seemed, Liverpool must make the breakthrough. But Owen, hitherto so lethal this month, dragged his shot wide and Tottenham, having survived, began to reassert themselves.
The key that unlocked the Premiership's most resistant defence was Poyet. Initially denied by Abel Xavier's tackle, and then by his own marginal inaccuracy in hooking a ball that had eluded the leaping Hyypia, the veteran finally put Tottenham in front after Anderton had flicked a delicious right-footed cross from the left and Davies, beyond the far post, simply let the ball hit his legs; it was a kind bounce for Spurs.
They were also grateful when Owen, having brought off an example of the startling sidestep that has been appended to his repertoire, could not force his shot past the lunging Clemence and pulled the rebound across the face of Keller's goal.
The rest was dominated by Liverpool substitutions, but none worked, Nicolas Anelka's struggles after taking over from Heskey being of especial amusement to the Spurs supporters.
Recollections of the old Wimbledon were stirred again by the final, frantic scenes of head tennis in the Tottenham penalty area. Tottenham held out, protecting Keller well, and it was at the other end that a more piercing raid had to be thwarted; Jerzy Dudek kept the margin narrow by frustrating Davies after the young Welshman had been prodded through by Steffen Iversen.
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