Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea may have sped out of sight for Liverpool but Gerard Houllier last night insisted that his vision for a team in transition remains strong. Liverpool's manager conceded that "realistically" fourth place in the Premiership, bringing the final Champions League place, remained the pinnacle of his ambitions but that his players would soon add true substance to their new style.
Liverpool resemble a property with impressive gates, a stunning, sweeping drive but leading disappointingly to a rather modest bungalow. Michael Owen, still injured, would have turned all their pretty possession and flowing one-touch moves, particularly in the first half yesterday, into something more meaningful.
But Emile Heskey and especially Vladimir Smicer lacked the cutting edge to harm a United defence ably marshalled by Rio Ferdinand. The sooner Houllier can pair Owen with the promising, pacy youngster, Florent Sinama-Pongolle, the quicker Liverpool will have a strike-force capable of consistently menacing opposing back-lines. "It's a real pity we don't succeed in being strong in the big games, like with Arsenal and Chelsea," said Sinama-Pongolle, "but we still believe we can do something."
Houllier echoed his compatriot's thoughts. "People will say we have lost at home 2-1 to Chelsea, 2-1 to Arsenal and now 2-1 to Manchester United but it is a fine margin," said the Liverpool manager. "I will keep going. We have had a watershed, changed our style and it's more energy- sapping the way we play. It's more attacking.
"I told the players: 'You have done yourself proud, we are definitely improving'. We go forward more. We won't compromise our style. We are starting to get things right. The second half of the season should be more interesting." Houllier must also consider whether to introduce Chris Kirkland for Jerzy Dudek, who badly erred again against United.
After a poor first half, notable only for some neat Liverpool moves and a booking for Ruud van Nistelrooy's Hand of God attempt, United seized control, stirred as usual by Sir Alex Ferguson's interval rhetoric. Giggs tested Dudek with a 50-yard volley after the Pole had misdirected a clearance.
Just before the hour, Dudek was finally beaten by Giggs and although far from solely culpable, Liverpool's keeper must accept the lion's share of responsibility. When United's Welshman crossed left-footed from the right, Dudek was distracted by Van Nistelrooy's run across him to the near-post, allowing Giggs' cross to curl past him and in. "It was a cross," confirmed Giggs.
"It could have been avoided," said Houllier. "When you are going through a difficult time, what you fear most is a lapse of concentration. It was not only the goalkeeper. Others could have dealt with the situation better."
Liverpool clearly did not expect Giggs to feature on the right but the move worked well for Ferguson. "Playing on the right gives me the opportunity to cut in on my favoured left foot," said Giggs, who struck again within 11 minutes.
Until then, Diego Forlan had done little to overturn the feeling that Ferguson needs more accomplished striking support for Van Nistelrooy. But then the Uruguayan crossed from the left, the ball speeding through to Giggs, who killed its momentum and sent it spinning at Dudek. Falling backwards, so limiting his range of reactions, Dudek could only make slight contact with the ball which raced into the net.
Ignominy was engulfing Liverpool but they responded well, inspired inevitably by Steven Gerrard and a beseeching Kop. The England midfielder played Sinama-Pongolle down the inside-right channel and the French teenager lifted a pass to the far post where the excellent Kewell scored with a composed low finish.
As Anfield screamed itself hoarse, Liverpool strove for an equaliser. A penalty appeared the only outcome when Ferdinand slid in on Sinama-Pongolle, sending the striker to the turf, but Graham Poll waved play on. "It was a penalty," said Houllier. "I told the referee. Ferdinand didn't touch the ball. At Old Trafford, it would have been a penalty."
Danny Murphy went close, Heskey missed a sitter before Poll ended a game of gathering drama. "It was a nailbiting finish," said Ferguson, who expects to sign a new three-year contract this week. "We were more than hanging on." Giggs agreed, adding: "We knew we had to fight right up to the end here because the fans demand Liverpool go for 90 minutes." But Liverpool need more than fight, they need finish.
Liverpool: Dudek, Finnan, Biscan, Hyypia, Traore, Diouf (Le Tallec 70), Murphy, Gerrard, Smicer (Sinama Pongolle 63), Heskey, Kewell.
Subs Not Used: Kirkland, Diao, Riise.
Goals: Kewell 76.
Man Utd: Howard, Gary Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea, Fortune (Fletcher 83), Phil Neville, Keane, Giggs, van Nistelrooy, Forlan.
Subs Not Used: Carroll, Ronaldo, Butt, Djemba-Djemba.
Booked: van Nistelrooy, Gary Neville.
Goals: Giggs 59, 70.
Ref: G Poll (Hertfordshire).
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