In the gents, one Charlton fan turned to another: "I never thought I'd live to see a Kevin Lisbie hat-trick." Booed off the pitch on the season's opening day, Lisbie has stopped his Charlton career sliding down the pan.
Liverpool were buried here yesterday by a 24-year-old journeyman who had previously scored only 15 times in 135 appearances (85 of them as a substitute). The coup de grace was a thrilling 70-yard run and finish that prompted Gerard Houllier to describe next Saturday's game against Arsenal as "make or break" for his Liverpool side. "All footballers have highs and lows, and perhaps I have more than most," said Lisbie, whose third goal was surely one of the best scored down at the Valley.
See what an unheralded striker can do when the cup of his confidence suddenly foams over. Lisbie had scored twice in the first half to negate Vladimir Smicer's 15th-minute opener for Liverpool. By the time the Jamaican international set off on his sizzling gallop, Michael Owen had equalised from the penalty spot after Chris Perry had tugged and grappled with Emile Heskey in the box. In miniature, Lisbie's swoop was reminiscent of Owen's strike against Argentina at France 98. Plainly, this one lacked the scale and skill of Owen's wonder goal. The connecting theme, though, is audacity: the absence of inhibition.
While Lisbie's spirit broke free, Liverpool missed the chance to move up from seventh to fourth in the Premiership. Just as Harry Kewell and El-Hadji Diouf are giving them punch and ambition along the flanks, so their defence is starting to look hesitant and wooden. Lisbie had been practising long runs from the goalkeeper's throws. In this sweeping move, Claus Jensen cleverly dragged Sami Hyypia out of position. Liverpool, though, will reflect that Lisbie's flourish exemplified a poor day's work at the back. This, while Owen is on fire. Eight goals in as many games is the record he takes back to Anfield for Arsenal's visit.
While Lisbie certainly stopped Liverpool's three-match resurgence, a bigger priority for him was halting the flow of derision directed at him for much of the autumn. The arrivals of Paolo Di Canio and Carlton Cole almost prompted Alan Curbishley to send yesterday's match winner out on loan. Curbishley, who has been linked with the vacant post at Tottenham, was robust in his defence of the club's new star.
"People forget: I put him in for the first game of the season at Manchester City," Curbishley said. "He gave us everything today. He doesn't stop trying. But he doesn't put enough of his chances away. His stats ain't good enough for a forward. I don't think he's ever going to get a better finish than that third one.
"I'm a bit disappointed with the fans' reaction to him. Our supporters are fantastic. They don't get after us as a team, so why they get after Kevin, I'm not so sure. If they're going to pick on someone, I'd rather they picked on me. Kevin knows what I think of him. He just needs to score a few more goals. When people get left out at this club [yesterday it was Di Canio's turn], they think it's fatal. At other clubs they think it's rotational."
Until Lisbie struck twice in 12 first-half minutes, Liverpool were settling into a sweet rhythm, with Steven Gerrard meandering about in front of the back four and Owen goading Charlton's central defenders with flicks, turns and sprints. But the pattern changed when Curbishley's defence retreated closer to their own goal, thus denying Owen, Kewell and Smicer space to run into behind the thin red line. This gave Charlton the confidence to retaliate on the counter-attack and so disorientate Hyypia and Co.
First, on the half hour, Lisbie surged on to a long pass from Graham Stuart and lifted the ball over the advancing Jerzy Dudek. Then the Liverpool keeper mistakenly conceded a corner, from which Lisbie scored again after Dudek had pushed out a Shaun Bartlett shot. With Jason Euell suspended, Cole injured and Di Canio back on the bench after three consecutive starts, Lisbie's harvest then swelled to five in three outings.
So the right balance between defence and attack again eluded Liverpool. From Houllier came this: "Give credit to Charlton, who believed until the end they could win it. But I don't think we deserved to lose. We've got to blame ourselves. We let ourselves down a bit today."
Hold the back page. Curbishley will be talking to Tottenham on Friday. But only about the Perry-Paul Konchesky loan arrangement. "Will you be talking to them about anything else?" someone asked. "No, I've had enough of that over the last two days. I've got two-and-a-half years left on my contract here and my thoughts are fixed on trying to establish this club as a Premiership force. It's very hard for me to comment on speculation so I'm going to end it there."
Charlton supporters will still worry. If he can draw hat-tricks against Liverpool from Kevin Lisbie, what might their Messiah achieve elsewhere?
Charlton: Kiely, Young, Perry, Fish (Fortune 74), Powell, Stuart (Kishishev 71), Parker, Holland, Jensen, Lisbie (Johansson 90), Bartlett.
Subs Not Used: Royce, Di Canio.
Booked: Young, Kishishev.
Goals: Lisbie 31, 43, 83.
Liverpool: Dudek, Finnan, Hyypia, Biscan, Riise, Diouf (Le Tallec 84), Gerrard, Smicer (Murphy 67), Kewell, Heskey, Owen.
Subs Not Used: Luzi Bernardi, Diao, Traore.
Goals: Smicer 15, Owen 52 pen.
Ref: R Styles (Hampshire).
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