McAllister leaves Coventry deep in the relegation mire

Midfielder returns to haunt former club with a killer goal from a free-kick.

Hundreds of Coventry fans clapped Gary McAllister off but the sportsmanship barely hid their pain. With two late swings of his right boot the Scot had left Gordon Strachan so deep in the mire that only a few tufts of ginger hair are still visible. McAllister, who departed Highfield Road last summer for nothing, returned to ruin everything.

By taking the corner from which Sami Hyypia headed Liverpool in front in the 83rd minute and curling in a fine free-kick soon afterwards, McAllister nudged Coventry closer to the First Division. His contributions kept Liverpool in the race for the third Champions League spot but the midfielder's celebrations were so muted it seemed even an Intertoto Cup place was beyond reach at Anfield.

"He was not overwhelmed with joy," explained Liverpool's manager Gérard Houllier. "He spent four years at Coventry and he likes the club, so it was sad for him to know he may have put an end to their presence in the Premier League." Hurting Strachan, his one-time Leeds and Scotland team-mate, must have heightened the emotions.

The four goals McAllister has scored in his past four matches, one of which took Liverpool into the Uefa Cup final, have highlighted not just the astuteness of Houllier's signing but how much the 36-year-old is missed at Highfield Road. No one has replicated the 11 league goals he got from central midfield last season.

Strachan, of course, is not throwing in the towel, though he seemed ready to hurl various other objects at the officials on Saturday. Coventry are such masters of the great escape it is no wonder he feels a 35th consecutive top-flight season may be attainable.

To stay up they must win at Aston Villa on Saturday and at home to Bradford a fortnight later and pray others slip up. Their best hope is that Derby lose at Manchester United and at home to Ipswich.

Coventry's display was both encouraging and deflating for their fans. They played with the energy and commitment Strachan demands. For long periods they matched and stifled Liverpool, applying pressure, but their failure to take chances cost them again.
Three times inside 13 minutes they might have scored, but none fell to John Hartson and each was wasted. The flow became a trickle once Liverpool tightened. "Six months ago this is the sort of game we would have lost," Houllier remarked, admiring his side's resilience. Twelve months ago this was a game Coventry might just have won, with Robbie Keane in the side.

Hartson's lay-offs and knock-downs created openings. But Strachan felt matters would be decided at set pieces, and McAllister proved him right. "Gary hasn't played all the games," Houllier said, "and that's probably why his freshness now is giving so much to us." A 10-month absence in 1997-98 because of a knee ligament injury may have elongated his career.

If McAllister was the executioner, Michael Owen was the catalyst. Only after his arrival in place of Robbie Fowler in the 63rd minute did Liverpool repeatedly get behind Coventry's back line.

The 21-year-old's pace and movement exploited the space Coventry left as they pushed for a winner. He would have scored four but for Chris Kirkland's saves and the hand Paul Williams used unnoticed to prevent one effort crossing the line. The impressive Hyypia scored from the corner, and if Liverpool win their game in hand they will take third place on goal difference.

When McAllister sent a free-kick beyond Kirkland, images of Eric Cantona came to mind. From March to May 1996 the Frenchman scored crucial goal after crucial goal to bring Manchester United the double, one defeating Liverpool in the FA Cup final.

McAllister may yet help Liverpool to two more cups and the third place which is their priority. Coventry's loss is Liverpool's gain.

Came on for Robbie Fowler in the 63rd minute and used his pace and movement to consistently trouble Coventry's defence.

Best moment : A 83rd-minute chip over Chris Kirkland stopped - unspotted by the referee - by Paul Williams' hand.

Man of the match: Michael Owen

Coventry (0) 0 - 2 (0) Liverpool
Hyypia (83)
McAllister (85)

Coventry City
Kirkland; Breen, Hall, M, Williams; Bellamy, Chippo, Eustace, Hadji, Quinn, Telfer; Hartson.

Westerveld; Babbel, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia; Berger, Hamann, McAllister, Murphy; Fowler, Heskey.

Referee: S. G. Bennett (Dartford)

Attendance: 23,063

Coventry City: Breen (10) Quinn (20) Williams (67)
Liverpool: Heskey (55)

Sent off
Coventry City: 15
Liverpool: 11

Coventry City: 3
Liverpool: 6

Goal attempts
Coventry City: 11
Liverpool: 13

On target
Coventry City: 4
Liverpool: 6

Hit woodwork
Coventry City: 0
Liverpool: 0

Coventry City: 7
Liverpool: 7

© Guardian Newspapers Limited

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