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ONE DAY maintained Gerard Houllier with a rueful shake of his head

"ONE DAY" maintained Gerard Houllier with a rueful shake of his head.

While referring ostensibly to claiming the prized scalp of Manchester United, which in itself is threatening to turn into something of a Holy Grail, he will privately attach a little more urgency to discovering a lasting solution to the on-going defensive ricks.

Despite the roller-coaster drama of another spirited second-half fightback, Liverpool can point to having emerged with only a slither of honour from another defeat at the hands of their most bitter rivals.

There remains, of course, only so many times that particular notion is a consolation to anyone, before the repeated hard-luck stories are over-ridden by the plain and simple truth.

Ever the realist, and how someone needs to be, Houllier reaffirmed before a ball had been kicked the gap which exists between the treble winners and his own side. And then for any followers whose rose-tinted glasses left them seeking to peer past his words as though they were some sort of psychological smokescreen, the evidence followed.

If Liverpool are not yet good enough, then at times on Saturday morning, as the first-half shambles threatened to heap humiliation upon embarrassment, they were not on the same plain.

That in itself is not a crime as the rest of the Premiership will testify - merely the measure of an all-conquering juggernaut that threatens to speed on . . . and on. This defeat, after all, should be kept in the same kind of perspective as the previous two wins against Leeds and Arsenal.

Yet the frustration associated with the current Liverpool side, is when they could be one of United's closest rivals so, when it matters most, they insist upon portraying themselves as trailing behind in some sort of distant slipstream.

Only when it was, in all probability, too late did they start to play and look as though they were no longer in awe of their trophy-laden opponents.

As ever, the root of their ills lies in the inability to consistently defend even the most basic of situations. Subsequently, exactly where Liverpool stand right now remains something of a mystery. It would be quite plausible for them to embark on a 10-match unbeaten run, for example, only for game 11 to be characterised by the sort of howler that leaves progress being accomplished at the rate of two steps forward - a giant one back.

"I thought we would have beaten them, but we handicapped ourselves. I think all their goals could have been avoided," said Houllier, half acknowledging the kind of injury crisis at Old Trafford that would still constitute a selection dilemma to most other managers.

But the rare feat of two own goals from the unfortunate Jamie Carragher and Andy Cole's unchallenged header, the lowest point of the horror show, snuffed out any such hope after just 45 painful minutes.

"You cannot expect to score four against United," Houllier admitted.

How Houllier must have glanced enviously at the frame of man-mountain Jaap Stam, while counting down the days until Stephane Henchoz is fully fit and pressing for a first start.

Individually at least, Liverpool do sometimes offer the impression that they can cope. Sami Hyypia was the only member of the backline to emerge with any credit, while past performances prove Carragher's nightmare is the exception to the rule. But collectively, and thus in reality, they lack leadership, organisation and retain a fragile pysche that is ruthlessly exposed by the very best teams ... and one or two lesser lights.

Henchoz will bolster Houllier's options, and how he must anxiously also await the return of German Dietmar Hamann which is thankfully now only weeks away. Only then can he be judged.

The prospect of elementary defensive errors was heightened by an ineffective midfield's inability to stem the relentless wave of United attacks, and their penchant, in sheer frustration at being second best, by compounding the damage and giving away stupid free-kicks in stupid places.

Like some ugly premonition, "goal" moved onto the tip of the tongue even before David Beckham had time to sweep his dyed locks out of his line of vision and curl two free-kicks into a penalty area where the white flags of panic were raised as Liverpool stood, to a man, almost on the goal-line.

Beckham was outstanding - his petulance regrettable - as United breezed to a 3-1 interval advantage; the crucial strike coming on the very stroke of half-time from the chest of Carragher. One 60-yard pass from the midfielder's right boot cut a swathe through the entire Liverpool team to release Ryan Giggs, who was firstly denied by Sander Westerveld and then from making an immediate amends by David Thompson's tug-of-war contest with his No11 shirt.

That referee Graham Barber turned a blind eye to the incident provided compensation of sorts for the blatant penalty he had denied Houllier's side two minutes earlier as Nicky Butt batted away a Patrik Berger corner rather like a serve in a game of volleyball.

By then, Liverpool had briefly punctuated Beckham's all-embracing influence with Finn Hyypia claiming his first goal for the club via an astute diving header on 25 minutes after goalkeeping debutant Massimo Taibi had totally misjudged Jamie Redknapp's deep free-kick.

An ally then, the Italian became the nemesis after the break as he was pressed into making a succession of saves.

The introduction of Vladimir Smicer, whose re-appearance from injury was one of the few plus points, and a switch to a 3-5-2 formation left Liverpool posing far more of a threat than they had previously managed to muster when Robbie Fowler was left isolated in attack and somehow expected to win aerial battles with Stam and Henning Berg as his team-mates lacked the patience - and on some occasions the technique - to plot an alternative route forward.

Both players were superbly denied by Taibi, before Berger's sweet finish from Dominic Matteo's angled pass and Cole's dismissal after an assault on Rigobert Song raised hopes of a meaningful comeback with 20-minutes remaining.

It was galling in a way, to see United cope so comfortably as the clock ticked down in spite of their numerical disadvantage as it merely underlined their opponent's deficiencies. But for a toe-poke from substitute Michael Owen which agonisingly rolled the wrong side of the post, that was that.

With a bit more luck they could have collected an unlikely draw, yes, but then United should have scored more than three when their ascendancy was unchallenged.

Of the two managers, Sir Alex will take more from the outcome of this thrilling showdown than his counterpart.

And Houllier? Well, as old ghosts rose again, he could point to the character his players showed in attempting to overturn a self-inflicted disaster, but they had demonstrated that in bundles at Elland Road and also in despatching Arsenal when the odds had perhaps been more heavily stacked against them. Those qualities remain the basis for success, however, not the garnish.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld, Song, Carragher, Hyypia, Matteo; Thompson (Smicer 46), Redknapp, Gerrard (Heggem 64), Berger; Camara (Owen 64), Fowler. Subs: Friedel, Staunton.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Taibi, Neville P. (Clegg 84), Stam, Berg, Silvestre; Beckham, Butt (Wallwork 40), Scholes, Giggs; Cole, Yorke. Subs: Sheringham, Van Der Gouw, Solskjaer

. Referee: Graham Barber (Surrey).

Bookings: Cole (dissent 27), Camara (dissent 57), Neville P (foul 59), Song (foul 72), Cole (violent conduct 72), Beckham (foul 85), Redknapp (foul 85).

Sending-off: Cole (two bookable offences 72).

HOW THEY RATED

SANDER WESTERVELD: Left exposed by his defence, the Dutch keeper is clearly still coming to terms with life in the Premiership. Produced an excellent save from Ryan Giggs.

RIGOBERT SONG: Out-jumped by Andy Cole for United's second goal, he struggled to cope with the threat of Giggs on occasions. Played his part in the second-half fightback.

SAMI HYYPIA: Emerged from the rearguard ruins with credit. His distribution from defence wasn't fully utilised by those around him. Claimed his first goal for the club.

JAMIE CARRAGHER: Proved that lightning does strike twice. In the wrong time on two occasions as he suffered a double dose of own-goal anguish.

DOMINIC MATTEO: Offered David Beckham too much space in which to roam and Liverpool were punished as a result. Provided pass for Patrik Berger to offer some late hope.

DAVID THOMPSON: Sacrificed at the interval as Gerard Houllier switched to 3-5-2. Worked hard as ever but failed, alongwith his midfield partners, to make an impression against Paul Scholes and co.

JAMIE REDKNAPP: Improved as Liverpool pushed for an equaliser and found more space following Cole's sending-off.

STEVEN GERRARD: Occasionally wayward in his passing, the youngster dug in but needed more support. Switched to right wing back after break and then replaced.

PATRIK BERGER: Guilty of conceding a needless foul that led to the decisive third goal, he was industrious in the second-half and claimed an excellent goal.

ROBBIE FOWLER: Isolated in the extreme and fed on scraps, he was able to make little headway against Japp Stam or Henning Berg. Looked more threatening with proper support.

TITI CAMARA: His pace looked capable of troubling the United rearguard, but at times his head-down approach leaves him unaware of those around him. Popular with the fans and his substitution was not popular.

VLADIMIR SMICER: Showed glimpses of his undoubted class as he returned from injury. Needs to adapt to the physical nature of the Premiership but capable of becoming a hugely influential link between midfield and attack.

VEGARD HEGGEM:Boosted Liverpool's all-out approach and started giving United problems down the right. MICHAEL OWEN: Something of a surprise that he wasn't introduced at half-time, he immediately posed problems. Just needs games now.

Copyright - Liverpool Daily Post

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