Liverpool Daily Post report

TO prevent Messrs Ferguson and Wenger becoming too heated in yet another squabble over fixture congestion, maybe the FA should draw a line through the remainder of the season. Certainly, no one at Liverpool would complain.

With Gerard Houllier insistent the three Premiership placings now immediately above his side remain a tantalising mirage - at least until a time when full-backs are indeed full-backs and his depleted squad doesn't appear to be cursed by some Biblical plague - the rest of this campaign is now all about preservation.

In the absence of a sudden shortening of the schedule, however, they will need to protect a position which guarantees the pre-season goal of a gateway into Europe far better than they did a 2-0 lead over Graham Taylor's side.

Watford boast a stadium with a cul-de-sac address, which is quite appropriate when you consider their chances of avoiding an instant return to the First Division.

They may cling to the scoreline as a counter argument to the seemingly inevitable, but even that is laced with pitfalls with only Liverpool's wastefulness and then sloppiness preventing the threat of a one-sided rout actually materialising.

What should have been a routine mission aimed at avenging that Anfield defeat back in August became laboured, at times fraught, and a little too close for comfort.

While that will be of concern to Houllier, for the first time in the millennium there were far more positives than negatives to be extracted from the performance.

Not least in the identity of the matchwinner, Vladimir Smicer, or even in the youngsters who continue to take giant steps towards apparent greatness.

It is a measure of Steven Gerrard's immense progress over a whirlwind 12-months that at 19 his presence in the middle of the Liverpool midfield now brings with it a reassuring quality to accompany all the other attributes he possesses.

His deployment at right-back has previously been through necessity rather than choice, so it was no surprise his role reversal with Jamie Carragher on Saturday benefited not only both players but ultimately the team.

Always available, Gerrard out-shone Dietmar Hamann, who seems to be suffering a quite natural dip in form after the initial adrenaline-filled displays immediately after returning from injury, and his every pass, tackle and forward run prompted a glut of superlatives to flow from those fortunate (or unfortunate) to be viewing him for the first time.

It is the kind of praise Michael Owen at one time seemed intent on monopolising. He may now have the share top billing a little more often and how that will be music to Houllier's ears � but it is doubtful the plaudits will ever dry up.

His inclusion brought the extra frisson of fear so evidently missing against Blackburn Rovers and always looked capable of tilting the balance in Liverpool's favour, even after Watford cancelled out a two-goal lead.

Owen's own caution over his hamstring injuries meant there was seldom an explosion of jet-heeled acceleration on show, but he merely compensated in other ways and turned creator on two occasions. The first brought the vital early goal after 10-minutes as a posse of home defenders inexplicably failed to clear Gerrard's cross allowing Owen to coolly steer a pass across the penalty area for Patrik Berger to lash an accurate shot past Alex Chamberlain.

The breakthrough should have signalled the beginning of the end for Watford, whose frailties are that glaring that Taylor choose to focus his programme notes on the great 'Posh-Becks' debate as opposed to offering his continuing thoughts on their battle for survival.

Free-running and tireless, Berger, who excelled and must now reproduce this form more consistently, clipped another chance wide, before he sent Owen scampering clear only for the shot to strike the crossbar.

Having passed and moved their way to a plateau which left Watford chasing shadows, David Thompson's faint touch to Hamann's 30-yard free-kick brought the tangible rewards a sustained period of dominance demanded.

And that should have been that. Game over. Three-points safely secured with the minimum of fuss.

As it was, two minutes of complacency - one immediately before and one immediately after the interval - left Houllier anxiously stalking the touchline as if checking his players were still the ones wearing red shirts.

When Xavier Gravelaine was allowed to control a long ball out of defence and feed Richard Johnson, without so much of a challenge from Stephane Henchoz or Dominic Matteo, common sense suggested the resulting 20-yard shot which whizzed past Sander Westerveld was merely a brief set-back.

That blip suddenly became an equaliser on 46-minutes as Westerveld, outstanding of late, rushed to meet but failed to collect David Perpetuini's free-kick and Icelandic debutant Heidar Helguson headed into an empty net.

The goals offered a sobering reminder, if one is needed, that when Houllier says Manchester United, Arsenal and Leeds United are better propositions than the one presently at his disposal he is not merely being a kill-joy or actively entering the kind of psychological mind-games all three of his counter-parts dabble in.

As Liverpool sacrificed the keep-ball principles of the first-half, so the match deteriorated into a unsightly scrap for a spell which offered Watford too much encouragement in trying to successfully complete what would have been a stunning comeback.

When Owen danced across the penalty area in front of at least six defenders and saw his drive cleared off the line and Berger then fell flat on his face while attempting to lead a four against two counter-attack, the prospect of an embarrassing haul of just one point from two matches with Watford grew.

It was imperative to claim a win having lost at Tottenham and watched their FA Cup hopes so disappointingly slip away just days earlier. That Liverpool were forced to dig-in and come through a test of character was a welcome, if unnecessary, sight. Enter Vladimir Smicer.

Perhaps it is indicative of Smicer's difficulties in adapting to English football that his introduction for Hamann after 63 minutes hardly brought with it an injection of hope that he was, in fact, about to make all the difference.

Hopefully then, his finish into the bottom corner following a pass from Owen and side-step past Steve Palmer nine minutes later will boost both his confidence and also persuade those critics already prepared to brand him a failure to lay-off.

Yes, give him more time after all he has not played more than three games in a row.

The jury may still be out to a degree, but rather than an expensive dud the suspicion remains that his winner will be the first of many and that the player, seldom utilised in his best position thus far either behind the front two or as a second striker, will repay his manager's faith.

Watford (4-4-2): Chamberlain, Gibbs, Page, Palmer, Robinson; Lyttle (Smith 83), Miller, Johnson (Bonnot 88), Perpetuini; Helguson (N'gonge 80), Gravelaine. Subs: Day, Gudmundsson.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Matteo; Thompson (Murphy 74), Hamann, Gerrard, Berger, Owen, Camara (Staunton 85). Subs: Nielsen, Traore.

Referee: Steve Lodge (Barnsley)

Bookings: Hyypia (foul 34), Johnson (foul 42), Hamann (foul 59), Henchoz (foul 77).

Copyright - Liverpool Daily Post

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