According to one measurement, Liverpool beat Sunderland 21-0 yesterday. That was how Gerard Houllier counted the goal-scoring chances in this Anfield festival of frustration. An unusually turbulent week in the red half of Merseyside ended with Steven Gerrard dropped to the substitutes' bench and his team both out of the Champions League and off the top of the Premiership.
Against a Sunderland side who have now gone five games undefeated, Liverpool peppered Jurgen Macho's goal but never quite got the ball to reach the string. Their real target, of course, was Arsenal, who regained the league leadership 24 hours after marching into a potentially thrilling second Champions League group stage alongside Newcastle and Manchester United. Arsenal now lead the title race by a point. The hole that was blown in Liverpool's finances and self-esteem by the 3-3 draw with Basle in midweek required immediate filling. No wonder Houllier clung to that stat.
Serenaded by the Love and Joy Gospel Choir at half-time, Liverpool were equally charitable in both halves. But at least they played with sufficient exuberance to support Houllier's claim that they can be as pleasing on the eye as all the other Premiership sides, bar Arsenal. "If you say Liverpool are boring, look at the stats," Houllier said. "We are the second team behind Man Utd in terms of shots on goal. We tried everything today: the long-range shots, the crosses, the cut-backs. The outcome of the game is probably as frustrating as when we played Basle here in the Champions League.
"Today we had 21 attempts on goal and they had none. That means our defending was good. At times the passing and movement in the first half was brilliant. I feel sorry for the players when they put so much effort in. We showed today that we'd overcome the disappointment in midweek. Sunderland rode their luck. They defended in an heroic way. I'm sure their goalkeeper has nine lives."
The demotion of both Gerrard and John Arne Riise was a timely re-assertion of managerial authority. The two warmed up together before the match and then retired to the dug-out to start their sentences. Gerrard's name was chanted by the Kop but not called by Houllier when Liverpool sent on replacements to intensify the siege. Riise and El-Hadji Diouf came on for Jamie Carragher and Vladimir Smicer after 65 minutes, but still Sunderland resisted the gale. Michael Owen and Danny Murphy would have been most heavily afflicted by angst when Howard Wilkinson's men fled to the team bus clutching their unlikely point.
"Stevie [Gerrard] has been different in training since we got back from Basle," Houllier said. Pan-fried by an unusually fierce boot-room tirade, England's foremost young central midfielder lost his place yesterday to the generally inferior Salif Diao. "The good Steven Gerrard is on his way back," his manager asserted. "And we miss him." Not for the first time Houllier picked out a strategic weakness in his mostly youthful team: "We lacked a bit of composure around the box. But you can't fault the players for effort."
Liverpool's goalscoring chances would require a separate newspaper to describe in detail. They had the misfortune to run into a fourth-string goalkeeper who was determined to live up to his name. Under Wilkinson, Sunderland are more resilient and industrious. "If you want a barometer, look at the keeper," Wilkinson said. "Five weeks ago he was nowhere. He would have struggled to catch a beach ball. Today he was magnificent and earned us some luck. And at times Liverpool played very well."
A major comfort to Houllier and his staff in a week of setbacks was Markus Babbel's appearance in a Premiership starting line-up for the first time in 15 months. Until he tired late on, Babbel was a pest down Sunderland's left-flank. He has the smoothness and dexterity of a championship-class full-black. When Riise is fully out of the doghouse, Liverpool will be flying along both wings. What they still lack is an alchemist or a ball-threader in midfield, which is why they so often sweep the ball from flank to flank, not knowing how to unpick packed defences.
In the first-half, Babbel swept a good Murphy cross high over the crossbar; then Owen fired weakly across the goal; then Murphy had a shot deflected onto the crossbar; then Owen had a good header saved by Macho; then Owen's swerving shot fizzed just wide. Finally Murphy was thwarted twice by Macho just before the break. After Sunderland had caught their breath, Smicer, Diouf, Owen, Diouf again, Diao, Owen again, Murphy for the umpteenth time and finally Didi Hamann strung together a fresh litany of near-misses.
"Ten years ago my blood pressure would have been soaring," Wilkinson reflected. "But my players did their jobs; mentally, they were tough and showed great discipline. You can't question their commitment." Had he suffered a comparable ordeal at Anfield? "Yeah, I came here with Notts County. I haven't had many easy games here. We don't seem to move much in the table, but this is probably as good a sequence as we've had in 18 months."
If the 'commitment' was beyond challenge, you could certainly question the inability of Kevin Phillips and Tore Andre Flo to retain possession and thus ease the pressure on their overworked defenders. Wilkinson, though, chose not to, praising instead their enthusiasm. He said: "When I came here, Flo was like a baby giraffe who had just slipped onto the veldt. He's stronger now." Continuing the African theme, the home team unleashed the Senegalese 'Serial Killer' Diouf, to finish Sunderland off, but were thwarted by Mr Macho.
Liverpool: Dudek, Babbel, Traore, Hyypia, Carragher (Riise 67), Murphy, Hamann, Diao, Heskey, Smicer (Diouf 67), Owen.
Subs Not Used: Kirkland, Baros, Gerrard.
Sunderland: Macho, Bjorklund, Craddock, Babb, McCartney, Proctor (Stewart 85), McCann, Kilbane, Gray, Flo (Kyle 72), Phillips (Thirlwell 66).
Subs Not Used: Ingham, Williams.
Ref: A D'Urso (Essex).
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