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Liverpool Daily Post report

THERE are few, if any, occasions in the past when anyone at Liverpool has willingly greeted the prospect of being second best with anything other than a grimace.

The smile which illuminated Gerard Houllier's face on Saturday may just return if his players can attain a standard previously at odds with everything the club has stood for.

Having previously retrained their sights from a top five finish to consolidation in third place, so claiming a runners-up spot beind Manchester United now becomes the tantalising prize on offer after an outstanding run of form that brings one huge dilemma for supporters now left to wonder whether they want this season to end or next term to start.

Few who made the trek to Highfield Road will doubt Liverpool's capabilities of overhauling Leeds United's slender one-point advantage, then fending-off the advances of Arsenal and Chelsea and achieving something which not so long ago was deemed wholly unrealistic.

At the scene of countless previous nightmares, they oozed all of the qualities Houllier and his backroom staff have worked so hard to instill into the players, culminating in one of the most complete performances of the season.

The foundation offered by an enviable work ethic allowed for a ruthlessly efficient display of pace and power; intelligent and thoughtful passing; and where the movement infrequently lead to mayhem in a Coventry defence which had never previously leaked three goals at home this term.

Ultimately, Gordon Strachan's side were fortunate. It should have been more. It could have been six.

While essentially a near-perfect team display, there is no disguising that the victory owed much to a smattering of individual brilliance.

Given the increasingly unnecessary 'will he, won't he' mystery over his appearances these days, it seems the only degree of certainty regarding Michael Owen relates to his unerring ability to produce moments of undoubted inspiration.

With so much that is written about Owen seemingly lies and damned lies, it is reassuring for the statistics to show he has now scored 12 goals in just 19 starts this season. That is impressive enough, but when you consider he has finished just six of that quota and the superlatives start coming thick and fast once again.

Certainly, his opening salvo was among the finest he has scored. Confronted by Richard Shaw, he danced inside the defender leaving him on his backside and then mesmerised Colin Hendry before lashing a shot past Steve Ogrizovic from around the penalty spot. His reaction, an explosion of emotion as he celebrated in front of an awestruck Liverpool following, said everything.

The second was routine in comparison. Tempting Steve Froggatt to dive in for a pass he never has a hope of intercepting, he took a touch before steering an almost identical finish into the corner of the net.

If it was Owen who stole the plaudits, then Dominic Matteo deserved to share some of the limelight having claimed assists for both boals.

"His progress has been absolutely fantastic," gushed Houllier afterwards. "He is not there yet, but I am very happy with him."

So often the scapegoat at the merest mention of a set-back, Matteo deserves all the praise and recognition he is receving right now.

While his manager's strength-in-depth philosophy would point to another left-back being recruited in the summer, it is a measure of his progress that should someone come in it would be to join him in the competition for places rather than simply replace him.

Like Patrik Berger, whose unselfish running and tracking back was a sight to behold at the weekend, Matteo appears to be benefitting from Houllier's attention to detail. The flaws in his game are being worked upon; his qualities embellished. The result? The kind of consistency that could yet propel him into Kevin Keegan's Euro 2000 plans.

That Matteo was able to concentrate on helping out further forward offered an insight into Liverpool's stranglehold over a Coventry side, who may still boast one of the best home records in the Premiership but who, on this occasion, failed to force Sander Westerveld into making a single save.

Admittedly, Cedric Roussel should have done better with an early header that whizzed past the woodwork before Owen slipped into top gear, but so organised, professional, assured and attentive are Liverpool these days that there was never even the slightest hint of danger from there on in.

Dietmar Hamann and Steven Gerrard formed an impenetrable barrier even before Coventry dared to reach Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz which left the threat of further goals purely a one-way phenomenom.

Ogrizovic, making his 600th league appearance, produced a series of saves as one rapier break was quickly followed by another and a succession of shots rained in on his goal.

If there has been one criticism of Liverpool in recent weeks, it is that all too often there has been no end product to finish off their moves.

David Thompson and Emile Heskey were each twice denied, however, as Houllier watched his players relentlessly push for more.

Owen should have completed his hat-trick after being sent-clear by his strike partner before the �11m new boy collected a fitting reward for his own non-stop endeavours.

Heskey rounded-off easily his best game since arriving at Anfield with an astute header from Berger's free-kick and was immediately mobbed by a posse of team-mates.

"Emile will be all right," offered Houllier later.

It was not so much what he said but rather the way he said it that helped to massage away any lingering doubts that his latest signing will develop into a highly effective recruit.

He linked well with Owen and generally looked menacing, but demonstrated and intelligence and touch which would seem to make him an ideal foil for whoever he is paired alongside.

Like Heskey, Liverpool look sure to go onwards and upwards.

It may be a pointless exercise, but it is intriguing all the same to wonder what could have been achieved this season had Houllier been afforded the luxury of a fully-fit squad.

Quite possibly the championship would still be heading to Old Trafford, but perhaps not by April 1.

In any case the title can wait.

For now at least, second place will do.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic, Telfer, Shaw, Hendry, Froggatt; Chippo, McAllister Eustace (Quinn 66), Hadji; Whelan (Keane 33), Roussel. Subs: Breen, Burrows, Kirkland.

LIverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld, Carragher, Henchoz (Song 85), Hyypia, Matteo; Thompson, Hamann, Gerrard (Murphy 69), Berger; Owen, (Camara 79), Heskey. Subs: Freidel, Meijer.

Referee: Mike Reed (Birmingham)

Bookings: Whelan (foul 27), Hamann (foul 49)

Attendance: 23,098.

© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

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