Liverpool sit back and Gerrard is left to walk alone
By Michael Walker at Anfield
You'll never walk alone. As he eased his way out of Anfield last night and off to a short holiday in France, Gérard Houllier must have sensed some irony creeping into Liverpool's famous anthem.
Boos once again greeted Liverpool at home and not just because Portsmouth scored a 77th-minute equaliser through their substitute Matthew Taylor in front of the Kop. Seconds before Alexei Smertin's break down the right to set up Taylor the Liverpool fans had launched into a chorus, another one, of "attack, attack, attack".
There is something wrong at Anfield. Last Wednesday Houllier suffered from the fans when they saw him introducing Igor Biscan for Bruno Cheyrou when leading 2-1 against Manchester City in the Premiership. Yesterday the Kop did its best to generate an atmosphere worthy of the FA Cup, but even though Michael Owen put Liverpool ahead after only 69 seconds and Portsmouth looked set for "a real chasing" in the words of their manager Harry Redknapp, Liverpool proved incapable of pummelling nervous and weakened opposition.
"Sad we couldn't bury them, really," said Houllier's assistant Phil Thompson. "We should have capitalised on a great start."
But they did not. So the atmosphere flagged and the Liverpool players, Steven Gerrard excepted, seemed to sag into themselves. Diffident is the most apt description for the individual performances from Harry Kewell and Emile Heskey, a pair who should represent a large share of Liverpool's creativity.
It means a replay at Fratton Park on Sunday and the cancellation of the Premiership match between the two clubs due here on Saturday. That in turn means fixture complications for Houllier as Liverpool strive for a Champions League place. "They deserve credit just for being able to challenge for fourth position," Houllier said of his squad in his programme notes. But that limited ambition is representative of the perceived negativity aggravating supporters.
Some may also demure at Houllier's brief assessment of Liverpool's display yesterday. "In terms of effort and quality of football I said to my boys you've done extremely well," Houllier said. "We were solid and strong."
But against a Portsmouth team missing Teddy Sheringham and Patrik Berger, solid and strong should have been enough to ensure comfortable progress to the last eight. Shaka Hislop made a couple of fine saves, from a Heskey snapshot in the 34th minute and low from Jamie Carragher in the 67th, but Portsmouth were never carved apart in the manner expected.
Gerrard made surge after surge and tackle after tackle; he even came close to what would have been a winner with a right-foot curler after a 40-yard burst in the 66th minute. But the captain's skilful athleticism aside, there was a lack of midfield craft.
Gerrard said the home dressing room was "a bit down" afterwards and one wonders what it was like at half-time. With the whistle looming for the interval Liverpool won a throw-in. Gerrard, with typical purpose, strode over to take it. Liverpool were on the attack but Gerrard, hard as he searched, could not see a red shirt worth throwing the ball to. Finally the referee Mark Halsey blew his whistle. Gerrard let the ball fall disconsolately and trudged off.
Yet when Owen scored his 150th goal in his 280th appearance, Portsmouth appeared pitiful. Just over a minute had gone when Eyal Berkovic sent a pass straight to Gerrard. From him it went swiftly to Cheyrou, back to Gerrard and into Owen. Owen's first touch took the ball out of his feet and with his right he steered the ball into the bottom corner. It was a high-quality finish.
But there was little to back that up from Liverpool and Pompey actually had a couple of first-half moments when Nigel Quashie and Amdy Faye might have done better.
Liverpool improved in the second half, Dietmar Hamann getting further forward, and in terms of possession they dominated. But Heskey slipped when set free by Owen and characters like Linvoy Primus and Arjan de Zeeuw grew in stature.
Redknapp then replaced Berkovic with Taylor with 20 minutes left and when Smertin made a sprightly charge at Carragher the Russian got as close to the byline as Portsmouth had all game. His cross was speculative nonetheless. But Yakubu Aiyegbeni jumped willingly with Stéphane Henchoz and the ball deflected to Taylor. One touch to control and then with his weaker right foot Taylor shot powerfully past the blameless Jerzy Dudek.
So Portsmouth had their draw and now have home advantage. Thompson was asked why Gerrard was given a pill during the game. "Heartburn," he replied.
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