Masterful Liverpool have the final word
WHILE Gerard Houllier may still argue that Liverpool's position in the Premiership is of far greater importance than their progression in the three cups they continue to contest, the fashion in which his side secured their place in the Worthington Cup final must have been satisfying indeed for the Frenchman.
Not only did Liverpool perform as they should against a First Division side who somehow succeeded in embarrassing them in the opening leg of this enthralling semi-final, but they made the impertinent Clinton Morrison regret the comments that followed the game at Selhurst Park a fortnight earlier.
Morrison had the cheek to mock Liverpool's forwards for their apparent inability to convert the many chances they created, asserting that had he enjoyed the service of Michael Owen and Emile Heskey he would have done rather better.
Well, for such impudence young Morrison paid dearly, Liverpool serving up a veritable master-class of finishing against their unfortunate visitors with goals from Vladimir Smicer, Danny Murphy, who struck twice, Igor Biscan and Robbie Fowler.
As for Morrison, his best opportunity came early in the second half, and much to the delight of the home supporters he succeeded only in mis-kicking. Houllier did warn him that spitting in the air can sometimes result in the need for a handkerchief.
Now that Houllier can look forward to his first final - Liverpool's first in five years - the manager has much to ponder, not least as a result of his decision to select Fowler in his starting line-up despite Heskey having recovered from a thigh injury he suffered against Middlesbrough at the weekend.
In recent months Fowler's future at Anfield has been one of uncertainty, but such was the quality of his performance as a lone striker last night that Houllier may have to think again before recalling either Heskey or the injured Owen.
Fowler scored in the 89th minute to take his tally to 26 goals in 31 League Cup appearances, while his overall contribution was also significant.
Fowler, the Liverpool captain, called his team-mates into a huddle just before kick-off, and whatever he said appeared to have the desired effect, such was the ferocity of their football from the moment their quest for a place in the final began.
A clever one-two with Jari Litmanen presented Murphy with an early opportunity, and had it not been for a fine save by Aleksandrs Kolinko, Palace's Latvian goalkeeper, he might well have reduced the first-leg deficit almost immediately.
You sensed even then, however, that the wait for at least one Liverpool goal would not be a long one. At Anfield, a Palace defence seemingly in awe of their illustrious surroundings appeared unable to settle.
Within 12 minutes Smicer, the scorer of Liverpool's 78th minute goal at Selhurst Park, put his side back into this semi-final, chasing down a wonderful ball from Fowler before holding off the foul challenge of Wayne Carlisle and beating Kolinko with an exquisite finish.
Two minutes more and Liverpool were ahead on aggregate, a terrific cross from the intelligent Litmanen finding Murphy on the right-hand side of the Palace penalty area. This time there was nothing Kolinko could do to deny Murphy, his volley surely a contender for goal of the season.
Alan Smith's side found themselves a further goal behind three minutes after that. A delightful back-heel from Fowler released Biscan, who scored with his right foot to leave Kolinko staring into the depth of his own net for a third time.
Palace could muster little in the way of a response and Liverpool, not content with a two-goal margin, pressed for another. In the 23rd minute Gary McAllister tried his luck and only narrowly missed.
Then when Litmanen rose to meet a cross by Smicer, he was faced only with an open goal but opted instead to head the ball back to a startled Fowler.
Palace enjoyed a brief moment of promise, a free-kick by Tommy Black forcing Sander Westerveld to tip the ball over for a corner, which came to nothing.
Little changed after the interval, Murphy increasing Liverpool's lead in the 51st minute with a fine solo effort that even the Palace fans were prepared to admit signalled the end. To add to their misery Kolinko was sent off seven minutes from time for a foul on Fowler just outside the penalty area.
And in the 89th minute Fowler met a pass from Murphy to thread the ball in under the legs of replacement goalkeeper Matt Gregg.
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