Houllier's rallying call produces final flourish from the men of May

Liverpool will approach next season with hope in their heads as well as their hearts. By winning three cups and, at the Valley on Saturday, reaching the qualifying round for the Champions League, Gérard Houllier's team have put Manchester United on notice that a fourth successive Premiership title is not Old Trafford's for the taking.

Certainly the end of the English season belongs to Anfield. As Houllier's side survived an angst-ridden first half against Charlton Athletic before winning serenely 4-0 to finish third in the Premiership, it was easy to forget that the championship had been retained by United five weeks earlier.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement a year from now promises to be as rancorous as Margaret Thatcher's departure from Downing Street, even Old Trafford may begin to wonder who has had the happier season. For United success has been coming up with the rations, for Liverpool it is a fresh, if hardly new, experience.

With the Worthington Cup won on penalties,the FA Cup snatched from Arsenal by Michael Owen and a crazy Uefa Cup final decided by an own goal, Liverpool could never presume that the win they were almost certainly going to need on Saturday would fall into their laps; or if it did, that their knees would stop knocking long enough to hold on to the points.

After all, a year earlier, needing to win at Valley Parade to deny Leeds United third place, they had lost 1-0 to keep Bradford City up. "If I hadn't qualified for the Champions League this time I would have been very disappointed," Houllier admitted in the wake of Saturday's victory. "I thought we deserved it because we are stronger than we were last season.

"If you look at our games this season we have won a lot of them in the last 20 to 25 minutes. I hope that's the hallmark of future champions. If we have to dig in, then we dig in. If we have to play, then we play."

On Good Friday, the day before United completed their championship hat-trick, Liverpool's chances of finishing in the top three took a body blow when Leeds won 2-1 at Anfield. Houllier had matches in hand but fixture congestion threatened to erode this advantage.

In the event he need not have worried as Liverpool won eight of their remaining nine matches and drew the other. Houllier reckons the turning point was Gary McAllister's last-minute free-kick at Everton on Easter Monday which brought Liverpool a 3-2 win. "After that game I told the boys I was certain they could win all the rest," he said, and he was almost right.

Whether Liverpool's French manager was quite as sanguine after Saturday's first half has to be doubted. For 45 minutes his players appeared physically and mentally drained by their efforts in Cardiff and Dortmund. During this period Charlton, previously beaten only twice at the Valley in the league, were first to practically every ball. Sami Hyypia, as hugely assured as ever at centre-back, was the only constant factor from Liverpool's performances in Cardiff and Dortmund.

In midfield McAllister, Steven Gerrard and Patrik Berger struggled to get into the game against the impressive passing and movement of Mark Kinsella, Claus Jensen and Graham Stuart. As a result Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, the latter keeping Emile Heskey on the bench for a change, made little attacking impact.

Charlton, meanwhile, could have scored several times and it was largely down to the goalkeeping of Sander Westerveld that they did not. This and the post which blocked Mathias Svensson's header two minutes after Jamie Carragher had failed to get a hand out of the way of an awkward bounce and got away with it.

"We had a little talk at half-time," Houllier admitted, "but I won't tell you what I said." Maybe he sang the Marseillaise. Certainly Liverpool re- emerged ready to mount the barricades.

The service to the front men was much slicker, forcing Charlton back. Ten minutes into the second half, after a corner from McAllister had been glanced on by Markus Babbel then half-cleared by Sasa Ilic, Fowler, with his back to goal, executed the perfect overhead shot to find the top far corner of the net.

The rest was ruthlessly simple. Danny Murphy came off the Liverpool bench to tuck their second inside the near post from the edge of the penalty area, Owen set up Fowler for a rifle-shot past Ilic, and then completed the scoring himself courtesy of an error by Mark Fish.

The Charlton manager, Alan Curbishley, was upset by the way his side had collapsed - "I saw some things in the last 30 minutes that I don't think I've seen all season" - but dismissed talk about his filling the vacancy across the Thames at West Ham as "just gossip".

Valley supporters will hope this remains the case but will stay concerned until Upton Park makes an appointment. By finishing ninth under Curbishley, Charlton have had their best season in the league since they managed the same position under Jimmy Seed in 1954.

And Liverpool that season? Managed by the former Charlton player Don Welsh, they were relegated.

He offered a timely reminder of his value to the team with two goals and much good work off the ball.

Best moment: Fowler's first goal, a sublime overhead kick which was both a measured shot and a measure of the scorer's quality as a finisher. 

Charlton (0) 0 - 4 (0) Liverpool
Fowler (55)
Murphy (61)
Fowler (71)
Owen (80)

Charlton Athletic
Ilic; Brown, Fish, Powell, Todd; Jensen, Kinsella, Newton, Stuart; Bartlett, Svensson.

Westerveld; Babbel, Carragher, Hyypia, Vignal; Berger, Gerrard, McAllister; Barmby, Fowler, Owen.

Referee: G. P. Barber (Warwick)

Attendance: 20043

Charlton Athletic: Ilic (84)
Liverpool: Gerrard (86)

Sent off
Charlton Athletic: 7
Liverpool: 13

Charlton Athletic: 1
Liverpool: 0

Goal attempts
Charlton Athletic: 12
Liverpool: 16

On target
Charlton Athletic: 10
Liverpool: 14

Hit woodwork
Charlton Athletic: 1
Liverpool: 0

Charlton Athletic: 10
Liverpool: 10 

© Guardian Newspapers Limited

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