Liverpool Daily Post report

CONTEMPLATING his side's FA Cup exit, Ronnie Moore allowed himself a wry smile.

"I remember when Gary Sprake threw the ball into his own net here," mused the Rotherham boss.

"I don't know what that Kop does to the keepers down there!"

Moore - who was a Liverpool supporter standing on that same terrace as a youngster - was referring to the moment two minutes after the break when keeper Ian Gray, after having seemingly held Emile Heskey's goalbound header, inexplicably allowed it to slip through his grasp, bounce off his diving body and bobble gently over the line.

Up until that moment, Rotherham had given an excellent account of themselves in a bristling cup tie and with better luck could have been ahead after striking the crossbar in the first half.

The relief from the Anfield crowd following Gray's timely faux pas was almost tangible.

Once ahead, despite playing the last half-hour with ten men following the ludicrous sending-off of Igor Biscan, Gerard Houllier's side were unduly worried and further goals from Heskey and Dietmar Hamann sealed Rotherham's fate.

But it was much more hard work than it should have been.

"The game was always a potential banana skin," said Houllier.

"Rotherham are a physical and well-organised side and made it difficult for us.

"The boys did a professional job to get us through."

Winning while not playing well is a pre-requisite of any successful side.

You need only look at the great Anfield teams of the past and the current Manchester United side to witness how profitable such a habit can become.

And as they failed to do at Middlesbrough on Boxing Day and so vitally managed the following week at home to Southampton, Houllier's side transformed what appeared to be a disappointing afternoon's work into a comfortable victory.

"I think 3-0 was a little unfair," added Moore.

"One or two-nil maybe, but that scoreline makes it look as though we were battered and I don't think we have been."

He was right.

With new signing Jari Litmanen watching from the stands, Liverpool struggled to find any rhythm in their play, and were once more guilty of passing their way in front of the opposition defence, rather than getting the ball into the danger zone behind them and hurting their opponents.

Particularly in the first half - save a bright opening ten minutes - the Reds were guilty of sitting too deep and affording too much respect to their visitors.

Rotherham may have the best away record in the Second Division and be challenging for promotion, but that didn't warrant Liverpool's early caution and it gave the visitors a chance to settle and shake off any nerves.

A further measure of Houllier's wariness of an upset - perhaps recalling last season's meek surrender at home to Blackburn Rovers in the same competition - was the strong side he selected.

With Markus Babbel injured, only Steven Gerrard was rested following his festive exploits and even he was forced into service once Biscan had been dismissed.

Certainly, Rotherham made it difficult and Moore took a huge gamble in playing three strikers in the hope of keeping Liverpool's back-line busy.

But while in terms of actual chances created the Second Division side were found wanting in attack, the mere presence of the attacking triumvirate was enough to keep Sami Hyypia and company on their guard throughout.

It wasn't just the opposing players Liverpool were battling at times, though - referee Mark Halsey proved just as worthy an adversary.

As is expected from a lower division side facing Premiership opposition, Rotherham were guilty of some agricultural football and the game had started to develop a bit of needle when it exploded into full-blown warfare six minutes before the break.

Vladimir Smicer was brought down just outside the area by Darren Garner, who took exception to the Czech's tumble and promptly pushed him back to the ground.

The Liverpool man - not exactly renowned for his hard man image - jumped immediately to his feet, only to be sent sprawling again by a shove from Paul Warne.

For the third time Smicer rose from the pitch, only to be greeted by half the Rotherham side, who then proceeded to chase him to the corner flag.

It was an unbelievable sight, and one that would clearly have had serious repercussions had it been a top-flight encounter.

However, once the dust had settled, the referee chose only to book Warne - and he was perhaps the least worthy to be cautioned.

But even that paled against Halsey's decision to send off Biscan on 61 minutes.

The Croat had already been booked in the first half for an innocuous foul when he challenged Paul Hurst near the touchline.

At the very worst it was a free-kick, so it was with some amazement that the whistler brandished first the yellow and then the red card, leaving Biscan to trundle forlornly from the field.

In what was a highly competitive but by no means a dirty game, there were five bookings and a sending-off.

Halsey has only been promoted to the Premiership list in the past year, and, as is typical of a referee these days, he seems intent on making a name for himself.

Unfortunately, the only name he earned from both sets of supporters from Saturday's performance is one that is unprintable in a family newspaper.

Ironically, Biscan's dismissal worked in Liverpool's favour, shaking the Reds from their slumbers and galvanising them into ensuring their eventual progression.

Say what you like about a current slight shortfall in guile and class - Houllier's side cannot be faulted for character and commitment.

Yet it could have been much easier had Michael Owen converted a golden chance in the fourth minute.

An exquisite through-ball by the excellent Smicer saw the striker through on goal with only Gray to beat.

He went past the keeper but hesitated slightly, allowing Robert Scott the time to race back and clear off the line.

Heskey, Danny Murphy and Smicer all tested Gray, but it was the visitors who then came close to scoring just past the half-hour when Kevin Watson's twice-taken free-kick was headed on to the top of the crossbar by Scott.

Liverpool continued to struggle to break down a solid Rotherham rearguard until Gray's moment of misfortune.

Owen showed tenacity to force Guy Branston into missing a clearance, and made his way to the by-line before floating over a cross which eventually found the net via Heskey's diving header and Gray's body.

Rotherham, to their credit, refused to capitulate and Watson had a goalbound shot blocked by Hyypia before Sander Westerveld had to save smartly from Scott's downward header.

But, with Rotherham legs beginning to tire, two goals in as many minutes sealed the tie.

On 72 minutes, a Heskey pass sent Murphy clear.

He made his way into the area, twisting and turning past David Artell and Hurst before laying the ball back for Hamann to hammer home low from 20 yards.

And Heskey and Murphy combined again to give the striker his second goal of the game.

Murphy's pass gave the ?11m man an opportunity for a run of his own and, as the Rotherham defence backed off, he steadied himself before bludgeoning a 25-yard effort past Gray.

It was a professional performance, but Houllier knows his side will have to play better if they are to prove successful at the Millennium Stadium.

But, with a four-pronged trophy assault still on and a Worthington Cup semi-final later this week, no-one could blame Liverpool for wanting to save their best until last.

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld; Biscan, Henchoz, Hyypia, Carragher; Murphy, Hamann, McAllister, Smicer (Vignal 77); Heskey (Barmby 80), Owen (Gerrard 61).

Subs: Neilsen, Diomede.

ROTHERHAM (4-3-3): Gray; Artell, Scott, Branston, Hurst; Garner, Watson, Talbot; Robins (Sedgewick 69), Lee (Berry 90), Warne (Monkhouse 90).

Subs: Connor, Beech.

BOOKINGS: Liverpool's Biscan and Smicer and Rotherham's Scott, Warne and Talbot.

SENDING-OFF: Liverpool's Biscan

REFEREE: Mr M Halsey.

ATT: 30,689.


SANDER WESTERVELD: Another fairly quiet afternoon for the Dutchman and another clean sheet. Made one good save from a header in the second half, but was less impressive in dealing with set pieces. Score 6

IGOR BISCAN: Pressed into a right-back role in the absence of the injured Markus Babbel, he never really got to grips with his new position before being unjustly sent off for a couple of innocuous fouls. Score 6

STEPHANE HENCHOZ: As ever, solid and unspectacular stuff from the Swiss international. Never gave Mark Robins an inch and his distribution has improved of late. Score 7

SAMI HYYPIA: Despite Rotherham's trio of strikers, he was never really stretched and appeared in control. Ventured forward on occasion and produced a few good blocks. Score 7

JAMIE CARRAGHER: Enjoyed a battle with Darren Garner down the Rotherham right, ultimately coming out on top. His defending is excellent, but his limitations going forward were once more exposed. Score 7

DANNY MURPHY: A peripheral figure in the first half, he came into his own after the break with his strong running and adept passing game. Did well to create Hamann's goal and had a hand in the third. Score 7

GARY McALLISTER: How Gerard Houllier must wish the Scot was ten years younger. His passing always kept Liverpool on the move and didn't show signs of tiredness, despite being asked to do more running with his side down to ten men. Score 7

DIETMAR HAMANN: Recalled to the starting line-up after a spell out with an ankle injury, the German looked a little lost in the first half and struggled to keep up with pace of the match. Improved later on, however, and scored a good goal. Score 6

VLADIMIR SMICER: Man of the match. Chief tormentor of Rotherham's back line, and now Anfield's new 'hard man'. Produced some delightful touches and caused danger with his direct running. If only he could provide a finishing touch of his own. Score 8

EMILE HESKEY: Scored twice and produced another excellent striking performance. Constantly harried the Rotherham defence and showed good opportunism with his first goal and a sublime finish for his second. Score 7

MICHAEL OWEN: Will have been disappointed not to have scored early on, but redeemed himself with a great cross for the opening goal. As his confidence improves, so his lightning pace is gradually returning. Score 7

STEVEN GERRARD: Replaced Owen following Biscan's sending-off, he again revealed his versatility by slotting in at right-back with the minimum of fuss. Score 7

Copyright - Liverpool Daily Post

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