The prospect of Ipswich leaping from Nationwide League to Champions League in two seasons is no less real after last night's draw with Liverpool here but the real beneficiaries of this result could well be Leeds United.
A late goal from Alun Armstrong brought George Burley's side the point which was enough to restore Ipswich to third place in the Premiership. Liverpool, who led after Emile Heskey scored immediately after half-time, were not too disappointed to remain three points behind them with two matches in hand.
On Good Friday, however, Leeds, who are fourth only on goal difference, will go to Anfield hoping to exploit any growing weariness among Gérard Houllier's players, facing their fourth match in nine days. Fixture congestion, as much as any respect for the quality of the Ipswich attack, conditioned Liverpool's approach last night.
Leaving Heskey up front - and Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler on the bench - Houllier concentrated on getting eight or nine men behind the ball when possession was lost to stifle Ipswich's normally fluent passing game. The tactics were similar to those which brought Liverpool a goalless draw in Barcelona last Thursday in the Uefa Cup, and for a long time the spectacle suffered in similarly drab fashion.
Liverpool's manager made no excuses for accentuating the negative at the expense of the positive. "You may think it was not the best Liverpool attacking display," Houllier said, "and I would agree with that. But as a manager of a team playing its third match in six days I had to make sure we got a satisfactory result.
"If we'd lost we would now be six points behind Ipswich. I'm proud of the character my team showed, playing a game like this only two days after an FA Cup semi-final."
In fact Houllier made six changes in the side that beat Wycombe Wanderers on Sunday but, given that Liverpool are having to play four matches, including a derby at Everton on Easter Monday, before the return against Barcelona, his plea of mitigation was well made.
The way Liverpool played, moreover, offered Ipswich a foretaste of what they might expect in Europe next season. As a learning process the experience was possibly as useful for Burley's side as the point they took from the game.
Not that the lesson was quickly assimilated. Matt Holland and Jim Magilton were denied their usual lines of communication with Marcus Stewart by Steven Gerrard and Igor Biscan, and Liverpool in general allowed Ipswich a bare minimum of space once they had crossed the halfway line. As a result Burley's team found themselves being forced to lob the ball over the midfield, which is hardly their style.
Until the extra strength in the air of James Scowcroft was introduced for the last half-hour the authority of Sami Hyypia at the heart of the Liverpool defence was absolute. And only when Ipswich raised the overall pace of their game as they searched for an equaliser did Houllier's plan of containment begin to go awry.
Until half-time the football of both teams struggled to find space in which to breathe. Often all 20 outfield players were confined to a narrow, crowded corridor and scoring chances were never likely to be plentiful.
Equally, mistakes were liable to be costly, witness the aberrant pass back by John McGreal, under pressure from Heskey, midway through the first half which left Christian Ziege with only Richard Wright to beat. Portman Road hearts almost stopped but the German wing-back wastefully dragged his shot wide.
Jermaine Wright did better for Ipswich just before the half-hour. A long throw-in from Martijn Reuser was cleared beyond the Liverpool penalty area where Wright met it with a well-struck 30-yard drive which Sander Westerveld did well to keep out.
With Gerrard largely confined to a holding role Ipswich were less at risk from the England midfielder's penchant for surging runs into scoring areas. Liverpool concentrated more on trying to find Heskey in positions to outpace Ipswich defenders and, when they did this 20 seconds after half-time, they took the lead.
As Ziege nodded on a ball from Gerrard, Chris Makin ducked under it and Heskey's acceleration did the rest. The burly striker cut into the penalty area and scored through the legs of Richard Wright. At that point Houllier appeared to have conceived a grand larceny worthy of Raffles.
For a time Liverpool's football became as positive as it had been negative hitherto and Heskey, who when he is not falling down subjects referees to endless ear-bashing, did have reason to complain when wrongly flagged offside as he was about to break clear once more.
The onset of first Scowcroft and then Fabian Wilnis, with his ability to turn defences on the right, gave Ipswich added momentum. They should have drawn level, or at least gone closer to drawing level, after 65 minutes when Scowcroft, granted a free header at the far post by Magilton's deep centre, nodded the ball across goal when he could have glanced it into the net.
Portman Road could sense redemption, however, and after 76 minutes it arrived. From Stewart's pass on the left Makin produced a searching cross which cleared the Liverpool defence and found Armstrong sprinting in at the far post to guide the ball past Westerveld.
Ipswich (0) 1 - 1 (0) Liverpool
Armstrong (77) Heskey (46)
Wright, R; Bramble (Wilnis), Hreidarsson, Makin, McGreal; Holland, Magilton, Wright, J (Scowcroft); Armstrong, Reuser, Stewart.
Westerveld; Babbel, Carragher, Hyypia, Vignal, Ziege (Hamann); Berger, Biscan (McAllister), Gerrard, Murphy; Heskey.
Referee: S. W. Dunn (Bristol)
Ipswich Town: 10
Ipswich Town: 4
Ipswich Town: 8
Ipswich Town: 5
Ipswich Town: 0
Ipswich Town: 6
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