Liverpool Daily Post match report
WHEN Gerard Houllier stressed Liverpool had achieved nothing despite a season of progress, his words were supposed to be more psychological than prophetic.
They still might be, but it is becoming a little too close for comfort now.
Having openly flirted with the Champions League, a second defeat in five days, coupled with Leeds United's obligatory win against Watford, now leaves the UEFA Cup as the realistic prize available.
But to even qualify for that there will have to be a massive improvement on a night in which they were out-played by Leicester City, who left Anfield deserving winners following early strikes in either half from ex-Evertonian Tony Cottee and Phil Gilchrist.
It seems everything that could go wrong is doing so - and at exactly the wrong time - as Liverpool end the season in similar fashion to how they started the campaign.
They are leaking goals once again. Soft goals at that, with the defensive solidity that has proved the backbone of the revival over the last eight months in danger of becoming a fading memory.
The grim statistics, however, go even further to showing that when the pressure has been intense, Liverpool have ultimately been found wanting.
One point from nine says everything about why dreams of taking on Europe's elite have suddenly moved out of reach unless one or two unlikely favours are called-in.
And Everton beating Leeds at Elland Road on Monday - a feat they haven't achieved for more than 50-years - is as unlikely as they come. No goals in three matches merely embellishes the horror story.
It will now take all of Houllier's powers to coax his confidence-shot players out of a worrying slump, which threatens to overshadow and undermine what was until a few days ago a season rich in promise, for the final two matches.
Shaken by defeat at Chelsea last weekend, Liverpool barely had time to show any reaction to that setback before the breakthrough fell to Leicester, making an already difficult task even more testing.
Dietmar Hamann, whose lull in form has coincided with the present dreadful run, was caught out as the outstanding Neil Lennon pounced from out of the shadows to seize upon on a loose ball in the middle of Liverpool's half. In an instant he lobbed a pass on to Cottee, whose first touch set him up perfectly to volley past Sander Westerveld before either the trailing Jamie Carragher or Stephane Henchoz could stifle the danger.
The strike, with barely two minutes having elapsed, as at Stamford Bridge, neatly summed up what was to follow.
The pint-sized pairing of Cottee and Darren Eadie ensured Henchoz and Sami Hyypia never looked comfortable and the jitters at the back spread forward.
In midfield, Lennon and Muzzy Izzet lead the way as the visitors hunted in packs like wide-jawed Alsatians, never allowing their more illustrious opponents to settle for a second. And on the rare occasion a red shirt beat one of Martin O'Neill's players, a second then a third and occasionally a fourth immediately swarmed to retrieve possession. For a side whose season has already embraced silverware and gleefully accepted the reward of their own place in the UEFA Cup, they fought as if it was their campaign which was on a knife-edge.
"You have to acknowledge the fact that they played as though it was their cup final," said Houllier, who is fast finding the men from the Midlands to be his own personal nemesis.
And it wasn't that they simply worked harder. In possession, they were more focused and they displayed more composure. By comparison, Liverpool offered plenty of huff and puff, accepted by a sell-out crowd at the final whistle, but there was little rhythm and even less thought. Plenty of perspiration, but when confronted by a wall of Blue shirts no inspiration.
The returning Jamie Redknapp almost elicited an instant response after Gilchrist had wrested Michael Owen to the floor just outside the penalty area. Waving aside Patrik Berger's claims to the set-piece, the skipper curled a 20-yard free-kick beyond the wall. It looked destined to nestle in the top corner before Pegguy Arphexad snaked out a palm and turned it away.
Apart from a tame shot from another set-piece which landed in the Frenchman's midriff from Berger at the end of the half, that was that.
In between, the frustration at being unable to create any opening of note manifested itself into fury aimed at the officials.
"One cheating so and so," or words to that effect, were swiftly followed by "You're not to fit to referee" as the Kop berated the over-fussy Graham Poll's refusal to allow the game to flow. Interestingly, it was an altogether different portrayal from the one he received on Good Friday at Goodison.
The defining moment arrived four minutes after the interval as Liverpool's sudden inability to start a half in the ascendancy surfaced yet again.
Izzet's corner skimmed off the unfortunate Matteo's head, deceiving Westerveld in the process, and left Gilchrist with the simple task of heading into an unguarded net from practically on the line.
Peversely given the size of their task had taken on Everest proportions, Liverpool proceeded to produce their best spell in which the possession they enjoyed actually resulted in an end product.
"I liked the way we reacted and the way we wanted to come back into the game," said Houllier afterwards but it was scant consolation as he surveyed the costly wreckage of this defeat.
The luck Arsenal had enjoyed 24 hours earlier to boost their own Champions League ambitions was missing as Berger crashed a volley onto the crossbar from 30 yards at a time when halving the deficit might well have offered renewed hope.
It was the only time the acrobatic Arphexad was beaten, however, as he produced a string of impressive saves to twice deny Robbie Fowler, on for the out-of-sorts Hamann, Berger and then Redknapp.
In truth, the prospect of a goal fuelling a late scramble for at least a point looked unlikely. Owen may once again have been fed on scraps, but he never looked threatening as he was effectively shackled by Matt Elliott. Emile Heskey was a peripheral figure against his former club and Fowler is understandably searching for his touch in an unforgiving glare of expectation.
Titi Camara, sent on in desperation, may yet provide the answer for Sunday's now must-win showdown with Southampton.
Ultimately, Liverpool tried everything, including threatening a power cut by dimming the stadium's lights, but it wasn't enough.
It must prove to be the final time Houllier's side fall short.
LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Matteo; Thompson (Murphy 75), Redknapp, Hamann (Fowler 53), Berger; Owen (Camara 67), Heskey. Subs: Friedel, Song.
LEICESTER CITY (3-5-2): Arphexad, Sinclair, Elliott, Gilchrist; Impey, Lennon, Izzet, Savage, Guppy; Eadie (Oakes 90), Cottee (Marshall 86). Subs: Flowers, Walsh, Zagorakis.
BOOKINGS: Cottee (ungentlemanly conduct 21), Berger (dissent 27), Savage (foul 64), Henchoz (foul 74), Murphy (handball 76), Camara (foul 79).
REFEREE: Mr G Poll (Tring).
© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo