Clash of the great pretenders

Chasing Manchester United and Arsenal for the rights to Premiership superiority, this match saw the clash of the great pretenders.

Stealing the third and final Champion's League place from under the noses of Liverpool last season, it was always going to be a close encounter. But no pundits predictions could possibly forecast the outcome in what turned out to be an enthralling game.

With Leeds looking to beat the Reds at home for the first time in five years, they needed a result to appease their shaky start to the Premiership campaign whilst closing the gap on the visitors.

Against a Liverpool side shining in the glory of five straight wins, this appeared to be a tall order for David O'Leary's injury stricken side and after only 2 minutes Liverpool took charge of proceedings. A Jonathon Woodgate trip on Heskey to the left side of the Leeds penalty area, allowed Ziege to whip the ball in from the resulting free kick, for Reds captain Sami Hyypia to rise and direct his glancing header past the stretching Robinson in the Leeds goal.

An excellent start for Liverpool, in which the Elland Road outfit struggled to control possession, was then capitalised after 17 minutes as Ziege found himself on the receiving end of another pinpoint cross. This time it was McAllister with the fatal delivery, who after six years as Leeds' captain was unfortunately booed by a section of the home crowd. As the German headed home to make it 2-0 to the Reds, the West Yorkshire fans fell silent and a rout looked on the cards.

But it was Ziege's mistake on 24 minutes, on a day of mixed fortunes for the former Middlesborough man, which opened the match up. Taking too much time on the ball, Ziege's deflected clearance fell straight to Mark Viduka who, taking the ball in his stride, chipped sublimely over the oncoming Westerveld to make it 2-1, put Leeds back in the game, and ignite what was to be a remarkable afternoon for the powerful Australian.

With challenges flying in, and Lee Bowyer booked for a clumsy challenge on Smicer, the match contained all the bite and zest expected of it. But as things settled into a midfield battle it was Liverpool who looked the more likely to score with Hamman, Heskey and Smicer, all sending clear chances begging.

Half Time Leeds Utd 1 - Liverpool 2

Starting the second half as Liverpool had the first, Leeds were soon level. Just two minutes after the restart, Viduka was again able to exploit the space afforded him by the Liverpool defence, heading home from a Gary Kelly cross to draw the sides level. At 2-2 it was game on with both sides taking turns to attack the others goal. Recording his first of the season, it was Vladimir Smicer who put Liverpool back in front on the hour, in what was now an emphatic display of attacking football.

On 67 minutes Gerrard Houllier signified his intentions for an all out win, with the double substitution of Fowler and Gerrard, for Murphy and McAllister respectively. But it was that man again, Mark Viduka who, with his first Premier League hat-trick, brought Leeds level once again on 72 minutes. It was a neat piece of individual skill that led to the former Celtic strikers third goal, but Patrick Berger looked to have twisted his knee in the box and had to be stretchered off, being replaced by Barmby.

A foray of chances saw both sides threatening to take all three points. Heskey's powerful run could not be matched by composure as he struck the ball straight at the advancing Robinson. A header by Babbel soon after bounced off the lucky Gary Kelly to prevent what would surely have been a goal. But as it turned out it was Leeds who had the final say on 75 minutes. And yes, you might have guessed - up stepped Viduka. In what was the ?6m strikers most poignant display since joining Leeds in the summer, the temperamental Aussie was again let in by a faltering Liverpool defence, to record his fourth of the day and his tenth of the season, taking him to the top of the Premier League's scoring charts.

Shell-shocked by Viduka's one man show, there was no way back for Liverpool as Leeds held on to their first lead of the match to come out winners in what, for all its defensive fallibility's, was a thoroughly exciting match. But as Reds manager Gerard Houllier said afterwards that 'at 2-0 or even 3-2 up Liverpool should have won the game', the journey back to Anfield will be full of reflection on how to fill the cracks that emerged at Southampton and Chelsea, and have resurfaced once again today.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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