Slaughter of the innocents; Euro lesson for Liverpool's bright sparks
By David Maddock
IF ENGLISH football mourned the exit of its last representative in the UEFA Cup last night, it must also mourn the temporary demise of Liverpool.
They sent boys out to do a man's job against a talented Celta Vigo side, and the result was all too painfully predictable.
A frighteningly young Liverpool team gave everything, but it was simply not enough.
While the youthful promise of Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, David Thompson, Jamie Carragher and Danny Murphy suggests a bright future, the present looks distinctly gloomy.
Celta exposed again what we had discovered in the embarrassing first leg of this third-round tie, namely, that without the suspended Paul Ince, Jamie Redknapp and Steve McManaman, Liverpool lacked any sort of composure.
Most sides, of course, would be embarrassed by the absence of such talent. But to prosper at the very summit of the game, you need a strength in depth to cover even such debilitating losses. Liverpool, sadly, do not have that at present.
Their passionate crowd created an atmosphere that evoked all sorts of misty memories of those famous European nights here at Anfield. But that is where the comparisons with the past must end because this team simply do not have the capacity to prosper in the rarefied atmosphere of UEFA competition.
Their boys will one day mature into men of quality, that much seems certain, but the red shirt has undeniably lost its lustre for the time being.
Not that Celta would agree. The goal with which Haim Revivo sealed this tie was greeted with the unconfined joy of a side claiming a massive scalp. And that was just the Spanish in the Press box.
The celebrations from the players were equally as raucous as they rejoiced at defeating one of the great names in Europe.
Liverpool, for goodness sake, have played in as many European finals as Celta have played matches in Europe. Yet here were the Spanish giving them a lesson in the art of how to control these type of matches. It was embarrassing and hurtful.
At least Liverpool were despatched by a wonderful goal. The Israeli took it beautifully, even if he did benefit from woeful defending in the process.
Revivo received the ball on the left from experienced Brazilian Mazhino, and strolled past two lightweight challenges in the box before stroking the ball into the welcoming net.
David James was so exposed his goal might as well have had a vacant sign hung over it.
The Liverpool goalkeeper had tried hard to somehow keep his side in a contest that was so unequal given his side's makeshift midfield and make- believe defence.
Naively, we had thought that Liverpool's defending from the first leg was so comic, the sequel could never be as funny.
Wrong. And how. The slapstick defending began within 20 seconds of the start. Phil Babb attempted to control a slippery high ball only to see it bounce off his chest and present Juan Sanchez with a shooting chance. The reflexes of James saved Liverpool the loss of the tie within the first minute.
James was called into action on numerous occasions afterwards, saving particularly well from Valeri Karpin minutes after the interval when he plunged to his right to stop a certain goal. But the keeper hurt himself in the process and was forced to limp from the field.
Celta could have had more but towards the end of the contest their finishing seemed to contain almost an element of sympathy as Karpin and Alex Mostovoi contrived to spoon shots over an empty net from within the six-yard box.
Stand-in skipper Robbie Fowler and his strike partner Michael Owen at least provided vigour and determination in the absence of any quality service.
They scurried around as though their lives depended. Fowler contrived two half chances from nothing before the break, but both times his attempts were foiled by Richard Dutruel in the Celta goal.
Owen's pace was always a threat to the Spaniards, who resorted to some strong arm tactics in order to shackle the 18-year-old. Even so, Owen managed Liverpool's best moment of the evening when he smashed a drive of vicious intent towards the top of the net, only to be denied once more by the athletic Dutruel.
Let us not be deceived though, Liverpool would not have scored had they gone on all night and this defeat leaves them facing a long, hard winter of discontent.
And, as Houllier prepared to pick up the pieces of Liverpool's disintegrating season, he was forced to administer a brutally honest assessment of his side's failure.
Houllier said: "They are a better team than us, you have just got to admit that.
"They played well over the two legs and scored four goals. Even with a full team it would have been very difficult to beat them.
"Missing four key players made it even more difficult - almost impossible.
"They play very attractive entertaining football, they have good players in every position and I think they outplayed us, mostly on the skill level. Their level of skill was just so much better than ours."
Any Liverpool hope evaporated after a scoreless first half and an early goal after the restart from
Israeli Haim Revivo. And even though there were encouraging performances from emerging stars like Danny Murphy, David Thompson, and especially Steven Gerrard, it was little consolation for a manager who knows he must bring immediate success.
Houllier said: "We are a young, inexperienced team and I know what we are missing but I can't blame the players for everything.
"They put in heart, passion and commitment it is just the fact that we are not up to the level of the other team.
"I thought we had a 50-50 chance if we scored first. That could have maybe changed things but at the end of the day even our full team would have struggled to beat them."
Celta Boss Victor Fernandez said: "Celta Vigo might have written the most important page in their history today.
"It was wonderful to win with such style and authority."
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