Ian Rush's reunion with his former Liverpool teammates turned sour at Elland Road today as the Welshman was booked in the second half of his side's 2-0 defeat.
Leeds lost for the sixth time in eight Premiership matches under George Graham as Neil Ruddock celebrated his first league start of the season by scoring Liverpool's first goal, with Steve McManaman adding a bizarre second just before the final whistle.
Liverpool were getting their title challenge back on track after suffering a shock 3-0 defeat at the hands of Blackburn in their last Premiership start 13 days' ago.
But it was a day to forget for Rush who, along with a host of players from either side, was involved in an ugly skirmish just before the hour mark which led to his name and that of Mark Wright being taken by referee Peter Jones.
Liverpool's first goal came after 13 minutes, by which time they could have been three in front. England duo McManaman and Robbie Fowler had twice combined to create chances in the opening five minutes, but failed to take advantage on either occasion. In the third minute, a deft one-two left McManaman clear with only Nigel Martyn to beat, but the midfielder fired his shot straight at the keeper who held the ball diving to his right.
Three minutes later, McManaman broke down the left and aimed a low centre towards Fowler, who was unmarked in the box. But the striker for once failed to prove his usual accurate self, swinging his boot but missing the ball completely. Ruddock made no such mistake in the 13th minute as he pounced on the rebound from a Stig Inge Bjornebye corner which Leeds failed to clear. Fowler's initial header was blocked, but the home defence could only clear it as far as the hard man defender who buried the ball in the corner of the net with a powerful right foot volley. The 28-year-old centre-half certainly vindicated the decision of Roy Evans' to keep him in the side after his impressive performance in the midweek Coca Cola Cup win over Charlton.
Evans named the same side today with Fowler the lone striker and Patrik Berger and unsettled Stan Collymore on the bench.
Liverpool dominated the first half and although Leeds looked better organised and were tougher in midfield after the break, that was when the visitors actually had more chances.
Graham's side had Martyn to thank for keeping them in with a chance of snatching a point until right near the end. The keeper made fine saves from Ruddock and John Barnes, the latter a spectacular tip-over after a rasping shot from the Liverpool skipper. But Martyn was ultimately to blame for McManaman extending Liverpool's victory margin seconds before time. Out of his area to deal with a long, high clearance from the visitors' defence, he miss-timed his challenge and the ball fell to McManaman who simply ran it into the net with stranded Martyn in vain pursuit.
Roy Evans tonight hailed Liverpool's 2-0 win over Leeds at Elland Road as a "fantastic result" -- but was still not totally happy with his side's performance.
The Reds wasted numerous chances as they were made to wait until seconds before the final whistle to make the game safe with Steve McManaman supplementing Neil Ruddock's 13th minute opener.
Evans was slightly disappointed with the way Liverpool lost possession to a battling Leeds side who never gave up and threatened until late in the game to snatch an equaliser. "We didn't keep the ball as well as we usually do," admitted Evans. "We kept giving it back and that meant the pressure was always on us. We started to sit deep and were forced back onto the edge of our box. We didn't give Leeds too many clear cut chances but on another day we could have conceded goals. But we fought hard and that's not really our style it was a test of character but we should really have been further ahead."
Evans paid tribute to goal scorer Ruddock, who justified his inclusion by opening the scoring with a 13th minute volley. The hard man defender kept his place in the side after impressing in the midweek Coca-Cola Cup victory over Charlton. Evans said: "Neil has tremendous character and gives you a chance physically at matches. He rises to the occasion."
And Evans also had words of consolation for Ian Rush, whom he allowed to leave Anfield on a free transfer in the summer. The Leeds skipper was booked on his first appearance against his former team mates and started off playing wide on the right before switching into the middle following Rod Wallace's substitution. "Ian tried desperately hard and looked desperate to score," said Evans. "He seemed a bit lost in the wide role but always does a job and I am sure that when a goal comes it will open the floodgates for him."
Leeds boss George Graham claimed his side should have been awarded a penalty just before Rush's 59th minute booking. The Welsh striker felt Mark Wright had handled in the area, his protests for a penalty sparking a scuffle involving players from both sides. This resulted in Rush and Wright being shown the yellow card -- and Graham was firmly supportive of his player. "If we had been awarded a penalty at that time it could have given us the momentum to get a result," said Graham, in no doubt that a spot kick should have been given. "It was a shame that Ian was booked. We knew it would be a scrap and it was, but I was delighted with the character of our performance. We scrapped and fought to the end."
Press' Liverpool man of the match awards
The Daily Mail : Jason McAteer.
The Daily Express : Steve McManaman.
The People : Steve McManaman (9/10).
The Liverpool Echo : Steve McManaman.
90 Minutes : Dominic Matteo (8/10).