21st Century Reds

THERE are three types of football manager: the intelligent, the sensitive - and the majority.

Gerard Houllier falls into the first two categories - a man who carefully plots for each encounter and who insists on publicly protecting his players.

What's more, the Liverpool boss places huge importance on tactics when many of his peers seem to think they are some kind of mint.

Modern, progressive football depends increasingly on meticulous preparation, both from players and from those employed to select them. Well, as we all know, Liverpool are modernising and they are certainly progressing.

Once again, Houllier's line-up to face Sunderland had been unpredictable. Once again it was a winning one. Not only that, his use of substitutes was shrewd.

Erik Meijer replaced the exhausted Danny Murphy to add beef during those late, testing moments of pressure, while the lively David Thompson brought vitality to a right flank which Steven Gerrard had diligently patrolled.

Thompson's introduction was particularly significant, for it was his delightful backheel which enabled him to reach the by-line and pull a ball back for Patrik Berger to fire home with a right foot shot on the turn.

That goal, in the 85th minute, sealed a vital victory against a side which squandered so many chances to have altered the outcome. But this is the new Liverpool; the resilient Liverpool, who have the capacity to dig deep and win when they have not played well.

They owed this triumph - their seventh successive league match without defeat - to phenomenal team work, but also to the individual exploits of a player who, according to some reports, had lost everything he'd ever had.

The media will always have people in their sights, but writing off Michael Owen was an act of the utmost folly. One should never bet against a winner, which is what Owen undoubtedly is.

Having hit the heights in the summer of 98, the Reds striker has been experiencing something of a low in this most fickle of professions. First it was the injuries which brought months of frustration. Recently it's been his ability - or, rather, people daring to question it.

Last Wednesday he took something of a battering, be it from a TV pundit or a Press which have, rather predictably, turned their golden boy into a golden target.

Owen, though, is a tough nut. When accolades were heaped upon him, he had the maturity to accept that the down side of football life could only be a kick away.

Like Jamie Redknapp, who also had the misfortune of being associated with that dreadful England side, he had nothing to prove on Saturday - especially to Liverpudlians.

Let's face it: Reds fans don't give a damn if their players fail to impress for their country. Nor do they care if they aren't even chosen to represent it.

What matters is club form, and Redknapp's has been good lately. As for Owen, once the effects of injury are banished he'll have people - possibly the same, hypocritical people - drooling again. Some of it's started already.

Those who thought he would not be the same player ought to have another close look at his 62nd minute goal. This was the usual, unstoppable Michael Owen, the way he collected Sami Hyypia's fine pass and shrugged off the attentions of Jody Craddock to clip a clinical finish which caused many to choke on their words.

Owen's joy was unbridled - and perfectly understandable, his embracing of Houllier a genuine appreciation of a man who knows what it's like to take stick, and who had gone out of his way to profess nothing less than implicit faith in him.

Liverpool are flying high, and they are doing so without key players and without hitting top form. One day they will, and they will give someone a spanking.

Houllier, therefore, while acknowledging the effort and spirit of his troops, was realistic enough to admit that his team had benefited from the odd slice of weekend luck.

Kevin Phillips, fortunately having an off-day, was afforded too much space too often and the Reds surrendered possession far too easily, tending to hurry their play rather than attempting a more composed style.

For a newly-promoted side, Sunderland's season has been remarkable, but whether they can sustain their form is debatable. For all the threat posed by Phillips, they rely on their predictable ploy of lofting passes to the ever-dangerous Niall Quinn.

That's plan A. Plan B has yet to be formulated, which might explain why Peter Reid's men have not had the required variety to win against the big guns they have faced: Arsenal, Leeds and now Liverpool.

In a way that's a pity, for the Stadium of Light is a quite magnificent arena and one certainly worthy of a top team. It is everything a football stadium should be: spacious, modern and atmospheric.

That atmosphere is generated by a public which is so excitable that it would applaud a drop ball. Needless to say, each Quinn touch - and there were many - was greeted with howls of expectation and with some justification, for the beanpole striker was a thorn in Liverpool's defence.

Quinn is a wily old fox, untouchable in the air and capable of using both fair means and foul to unsettle his marker. This, then, was the first game in which the rock-steady Hyypia looked as if he had been tested.

That said, the Finn stood his ground, despite Quinn's phyiscal approach, having the calmness and vision to pick out Owen with a precise - and definitely not hopeful - ball which the youngster went on to despatch.

Deprived of five players through suspension, four of them key ones, this fixture was as much of an examination of Sunderland's resolve as it was Liverpool's.

The difference was in the finishing, for the Reds - if not that tough to break down - were tough to kill, with everyone pulling for each other. Sander Westerveld, ajusting confidently to the Premiership, provided security and agility in goal, while Rigobert Song�s two determined goal-line clearances underlined the attitude of a team which simply refused to lose.

Then there was Stephane Henchoz, often overlooked because of the man alongside him. This was the Swiss' best match since his summer arrival, his timed tackles and skilful reading making him the ideal foil for Hyypia.

But caution: all is not yet right at Anfield, so don't go expecting too much too soon. Still, we'll take what we have for now.

Report by Ric George Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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