Nervously watching their backs has become the theme of Leeds United's sorry season. Managers are sacked, players are sold and fans cover their eyes from some of the most hapless defending to scar the Premiership. And now Leeds look anxiously behind them at the alarming sight of supposed relegation candidates catching them up.
If Bolton Wanderers avoid defeat at home to Tottenham Hotspur tonight, Leeds will be four points off the relegation places. No wonder Leeds have offered Peter Reid £500,000 to maintain their Premiership status. Yet his first day in the office brought little succour, partly because of the team's paucity of self-belief and defensive solidity, but also because Liverpool were electric at times.
A victory secured by fine goals from the outstanding England trio of Michael Owen, Danny Murphy and Steven Gerrard proved doubly pleasurable for Liverpool. Not only did they leapfrog Everton but they now lie two points behind Chelsea, the side occupying the fourth Champions League place. Liverpool's last game of the season is at Stamford Bridge, which may effectively prove a Champions League play-off.
Leeds will hope to achieve their own, more modest objective: survival. They have some good players - Paul Robinson showed England form yesterday - yet a culture of uncertainty triggered by the boardroom has palsied the dressing room.
The board's decision to sell Jonathan Woodgate demoralised the players as much as it angered Terry Venables, who was sacked on Thursday. Reid argued that off-the-field problems carried no influence in the dressing room but then the ebullient Merseysider has always seen a glass - preferably Chardonnay - as half-full, rather than half-empty.
"A lot has been talked about the plight of Leeds United and how it has affected the players but I don't hold with that," said Reid. "The players are paid to go out and play football. What goes on in the boardroom is nothing to do with them. There are some good players here but they are not doing themselves justice. They are under-achieving."
Why? Their confidence has naturally been drained by the events of such a dispiriting season while Woodgate's transfer - and the current injury to Dominic Matteo - has deprived Leeds of mobile, defensive organisers. Liverpool took one look at Teddy Lucic and Raul Bravo, in particular, and ripped into them.
Owen covered every inch of the attacking third, delivering a masterclass of creating and finishing. Gerrard anchored and created. Murphy similarly excelled, signalling Liverpool's busy intent with a 20-yarder that Robinson did well to palm over.
At times, Robinson appeared to be playing Liverpool on his own, soon making another fine save from El Hadji Diouf, who was lively in the first half. This was hardly surprising. Facing Diouf was Raul Bravo, who delivered one of those hapless televised cameos that end up on You've Been Framed.
Within 13 minutes, Gerrard and Owen combined well to release Diouf into the area allegedly guarded by Bravo. Diouf's cross found Owen, who registered his 22nd goal of the season with a crisp left-footer. In the main stand, Peter Ridsdale held his head in his hands.
The Leeds chairman, castigated by the Leeds supporters throughout and cheekily serenaded by the Kop, was soon gesticulating towards Bravo. So was Reid. "Down their right-hand side, Liverpool were getting in for fun," said Leeds's latest manager. "We were trying to get information on but couldn't." Reid's Spanish is of the "dos San Miguel" variety.
Bravo was not the only Leeds full-back struggling in front of a gloating Kop. When Danny Mills caught John Arne Riise, the whole Leeds defence froze, expecting a free-kick. Referee Andy D'Urso waved play on and Murphy unleashed a marvellous 20-yarder from left to right past Robinson.
Leeds were fortunate that Liverpool then dozed off, indulging in some woeful defending of their own, allowing Mark Viduka to beat Jerzy Dudek at the second attempt just before half-time.
Barring a spectacular miss from Emile Heskey and Robinson's athletic touch of a Murphy shot on to the post, the second half lacked the excitement of the first until the 72nd minute when Owen began running at Bravo's replacement, Ian Harte, and Lucic. Owen eluded both before setting up Gerrard, who drove the ball in stylishly. "Michael did the hard work," said Gerrard. "I just sidefooted it."
Gerard Houllier, too, was quick to laud Owen's contribution. "Right from the start, Michael was dropping deep, turning, beating payers, scoring and making a goal," said the Liverpool manager. "At times we were brilliant." Leeds were poor and now really have their backs to the wall.
Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Hyypia, Traore, Riise, Diouf, Hamann (Diao 78), Gerrard, Murphy, Owen, Heskey (Baros 78).
Subs Not Used: Smicer, Arphexad, Biscan.
Goals: Owen 12, Murphy 20, Gerrard 73.
Leeds: Robinson, Mills, Lucic, Radebe, Bravo (Harte 45), Barmby (Milner 45), Bakke, Okon (McMaster 78), Wilcox, Viduka, Smith.
Subs Not Used: Martyn, Batty.
Goals: Viduka 44.
Ref: A D'Urso (Essex).
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