Another imperfect day for Houllier

As Liverpool's players trailed off, embarrassed and humiliated, the first strains of Lou Reed's piano echoed around Anfield. By the time they had reached the tunnel, Perfect Day was playing to the few home fans who had not dashed through the exit. The title could hardly have been more inappropriate.

The simple reason that Liverpool's faltering campaign to finish in fourth place is so devastating for manager Gerard Houllier is because his future depends on it. Champions League football has become a chance for the eternally merciful board to stick with their man. The hope of fourth place has become their excuse for not bowing to the pressure to sack Houllier but, now that the stakes have been set, failure simply seems inexcusable.

This campaign to avoid missing out on Champions League football for a second successive season has become intensely personal for Houllier. Which makes yesterday's performance a huge slight on the Liverpool manager, whose team were guileless and flat, struggling to break down a Charlton defence who were numerous and robust but hardly invincible. Worse still, all the old problems were there. Michael Owen isolated, El Hadji Diouf hopeless and all the responsibility on Steven Gerrard.

Backed into a corner by his players, Houllier admitted that this performance had been "disappointing" but he stuck grimly to the old belief that underpins his whole reign. "The mistake would be to throw the towel in now," he said. But the truth is that the destiny of fourth place is now with Newcastle, who are level on points with a game in hand. And behind them wait Aston Villa, with one point fewer, and then Charlton and Birmingham in striking distance.

But just savour this new record for Houllier and Liverpool. Charlton had not won at Anfield since February 1954 and manager Alan Curbishley noted that the match programme had also recorded his previous failure to win here as both player and manager. "So I'm going to enjoy this one," he said.

Ignore for a moment the wretchedness of Liverpool and admire a Charlton team who, as Curbishley invited everyone to remember, have also suffered terribly from injuries. In the centre of their defence, Hermann Hreidarsson handled Owen as well as anyone this season and Shaun Bartlett converted the one clear chance created for him.

In the moments leading up to the goal, Gerrard was remarkably lucky to get away with a blatant push in Hreidarsson's back as the defender rose for a corner in the area. In the fall-out, referee Phil Dowd awarded Charlton a second controversial corner and, from Claus Jensen's cross, Bartlett rose unmarked to beat Jerzy Dudek with a close-range header after 63 minutes.

It took another 15 minutes before Liverpool managed to carve out the first decent chance for Owen, who was unable to control his shot from Sami Hyypia's knock-down. Watching Owen's loneliness in attack is deflating and one can only imagine how dispiriting it must be for the man himself. Harry Kewell was similarly anonymous and Emile Heskey was beckoned off after an hour.

"It's a disappointing result and a disappointing performance and we know we can do better," Houllier said. "Maybe the Arsenal game took a lot out of us but the race for fourth place is still open. I don't think we hurt them enough but when it's not your day, you have to keep a clean sheet."

The one penalty that Liverpool might have claimed ended in a booking for Gerrard as he tangled with Radostin Kishishev. It was a sad end to another colossal effort from the captain who has cajoled and driven his team through the dark days of this season.

Curbishley added: "To get a result at Anfield is a fantastic achievement and you saw some heroic performances. Chris Powell has played twice in three days after not playing at all this year. People know that I am realistic about my team but what has let us down this season has been the games at the Valley."

Charlton very nearly saw their perfect day disappear in the 84th minute when Gerrard smacked a cross towards the back post and substitute Vladimir Smicer's header drew a reflex save from Dean Kiely. It might have been a pivotal moment - the moment when Liverpool left their fate to be decided by the other clubs competing for fourth place. It might also mean that Houllier's fate, too, will be sealed away from Anfield.

Match details

Liverpool: Dudek, Riise, Henchoz, Hyypia, Carragher, Kewell, Gerrard, Hamann, Diouf (Smicer 57), Owen, Heskey (Baros 57).
Subs Not Used: Murphy, Cheyrou, Luzi Bernardi.
Booked: Gerrard.

Charlton: Kiely, Kishishev, Hreidarsson, Young, Powell, Fortune, Holland, Jensen, Konchesky, Johansson (Euell 86), Bartlett.
Subs Not Used: Thomas, Royce, Cole, Perry.
Goals: Bartlett 63.

Att: 40,003
Ref: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

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