Robbie Fowler struck at the double to fire Liverpool into third place in the Premiership and leave Derby facing a long, hard winter. The England striker broke the spirits of Jim Smith's side with two goals in four early second half minutes at Anfield to make it four goals in three games since he returned from an ankle injury and six for the season.
It meant that the 21-year-old Fowler has now scored 89 goals in 154 appearances since opening his account on his Coca-Cola Cup debut against Fulham in 1993.
Derby were the latest team to feel the force of his awesome striking power, and the Rams have now seen a bright start to the season disappear completely after a dire run which has seen them now go seven league and cup matches without a win. Their last success came against Sunderland on September 14 and they face an instant return to the first division unless manager Smith can find someone to provide the goals to go with the strong defensive platform of Igor Stimac and Paul McGrath and the intellegent midfield probings of Aljosa Asanovic.
Ashley Ward grabbed a last-minute consolation with his first goal of the season for the Rams in the last minute, but anything other than a Liverpool win would have been a travesty.
Before the kick-off, both sides and sets of fans respectfully observed a minute's silence for Chelsea vice-chairman Matthew Harding and the victims of the recent Guatemala City stadium disaster. Liverpool certainly found the going tough as Derby showed they intend to stay in the Premiership despite arriving on Merseyside without a win at Anfield since the 1969-70 season.
Stimac and McGrath kept a tight rein on Fowler, who still looked short of match fitness after his recent ankle injury. But things might have been easier had Patrik Berger accepted a golden second-minute chance, the Czech Republic star slicing wildly wide after John Barnes had sent him clear with a wonderfully weighted pass.
With Christian Dailly and Darryl Powell biting into every tackle, the Reds were finding their usual routes through the midfield blocked off repeatedly. And when they did get a sight of Russell Hoult's goal, the Derby keeper kept the home side out with plenty of skill and a little luck.
Hoult produced a fine save to tip away a Stig Bjornebye free kick from just outside the area, but was fortunate not to be punished when he spilled a corner from the Norwegian full-back and Gary Rowett hacked clear. Phil Babb glanced a header just over, and Liverpool must have thought it just wasn't their day when a stinging 20-yard drive from Fowler was beaten out by Hoult and Steve McManaman sent the rebound against the post from an acute angle.
But there was only going to be one outcome once Fowler had broken Derby's resistance two minutes after half-time. Barnes worked a corner back to Berger 25 yards out and when the Czech's sweetly struck drive bounced back off Hoult's body, Fowler instinctively slid in to score.
If the England striker had been a little sluggish in the first half, he certainly had a spring in his step now and, four minutes later, he pounced in devastating fashion again. Jason McAteer swung in an inviting ball from the right and the diminutive Fowler leapt between the imposing figures of Stimac and McGrath to power a 16-yard header into the corner.
Asanovic, at the heart of every Derby counter attack, almost found an instant riposte when he fired straight at David James after a surging run from deep. But Liverpool were playing with a flourish now and, after linking up superbly with Fowler, McManaman hooked a shot beyond the static Hoult but a fraction wide.
Berger then brought the visitors' keeper into more action, whipping in an angled drive that was beaten away, before Fowler swung a curling effort over the angle. Barnes then sent another long-range effort just over, but the Reds were given an anxious last few moments after Ward gave the travelling Derby fans in a 39,515 crowd something to cheer.
Asanovic wriggled past two challenges and delivered a low cross that was swept against the body of James by Ward, with the £1million former Norwich striker scooping the rebound gratefully home. But it was too little, too late from the visitors and they will be praying for the swift return of three-goal top scorer Dean Sturridge from injury, while Liverpool can keep on dreaming about the title.
Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler tried to play down the significance of his side's 2-1 home victory against Derby today -- both in terms of the race for the Premiership and his own international prospects. Fowler struck twice in the space of four minutes early in the second half to put his side in control and secure a win which gives the Anfield side a point behind the leaders with a game in hand.
"It was the right time to score," said Fowler who has had to pull out of the England squad twice this season through injury. "I am not 100% fit yet and that showed in the first half. "It is quite early days in the season, but important that we stay in touch. We have just got to get as many wins as we can under our belt as we can, there is a long way to go yet."
When asked about his own England prospects with Newcastle's Alan Shearer now sidelined for several weeks, Fowler said: "It is pleasing to get a mention. I have just got to keep playing well for Liverpool and anything else is a bonus, to use a footballing cliche."
But Liverpool manager Roy Evans was disappointed his side finished the match on the defensive after Ashley Ward's late goal gave Derby late hope of snatching a point. "We went 2-0 up today and then got a little bit careless and were hanging on at the end. We are always on about being professional and had done a good job on the day, and it would have been silly to spoil it," stated Evans. "Once we lost that goal there was a chance of an equaliser, while at 2-0 they had no chance. It is important we benefited after yesterday's results."
Liverpool are being linked with several players, including Middlesbrough's Nick Barmby, but Evans insisted: "We certainly would not be telling the papers before we have made inquiries ourselves." Derby boss Jim Smith commented: "We stayed with them, got the goal and could possibly have got another one. We defended well in the first half and didn't do enough when we got the ball but, second half, two bad defensive goals cost us. Overall we are pleased with our Premiership progress, but we have got to start winning games."
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