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Daily Post report

IF HE ever wants to jump into the Kop, Peter Crouch had better stop jumping on all those black cats.

The newspapers should have been cluttered with images of a blissfully happy striker unfolding himself out of the front rows of Anfield's famous stand.

Instead, they're full of the likes of Boudewijn Zenden, Djibril Cisse and Fernando Morientes - pictures that, while documenting an utterly hassle-free afternoon for Liverpool, also speak of the latest trauma to befall a man whose run of bad luck will just not let up.

But then again, is it bad luck? For while Crouch had possibly his best game for Liverpool on Saturday, his failure to convert at least one of many chances suggests his goalscoring duck is being fed more on stale crusts of profligacy than seeds of misfor-tune.

After all, it's not just bad luck ensuring every gilt-edged header he is presented with goes down the goalkeeper's throat with unerring accuracy. It isn't just bad luck that sees Crouch swiping at fresh air whenever a close-range chance is presented or losing his head when put through on goal.

And now, of course, there's a missed penalty to add into the equation. Luck inevitably plays a part in any spot-kick, but set alongside his welter of other misses and Peter Crouch, curse or not, is quickly in danger of becoming an expensive misjudgement from Rafael Benitez. The striker's saving grace is that time is on his side; his work-rate certainly deserves a break.

That recurring issue aside, Benitez had plenty to smile about on Saturday. Portsmouth, with manager Alain Perrin a target for derision from not only his own fans but even his own chairman in the directors' box,, did little to suggest they were overly intent on extending the Frenchman's sojourn on the south coast.

Liverpool seldom shifted from second gear but given that some Pompey performers - most notably Laurent Robert, who sulked his way through a disgracefully care-free hour - hardly bothered to switch the ignition on, the result was never in doubt.

The aforementioned trio were on hand to provide the goals, but it was the defence - chalking up a sixth hour without conceding a goal and a 14th clean sheet in all this season - who increasingly justify Benitez's claim that his players do indeed represent an improvement from 12 months ago.

The virtual ever-presents of the campaign - Jose Reina,, Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher - inhabit a triangle at the back that appears less penetrable by the week, while Steve Finnan continues to display a steadiness on the right that is more often than not a match for the rotating occupants on the other wing.

In midfield, too, the strength in depth is now apparent. In the wake of some players' exhausting World Cup play-off commitments, Zenden and Dietman Hamann were drafted in but their performances served only to enhance Liverpool.

Of those on international duty only Luis Garcia, the hat-trick hero as Spain booked their ticket to Germany, made it to the starting line-up but a hip injury - not serious, Benitez revealed later - forced his withdrawal after only 22 minutes.

John Arne Riise, meanwhile, had perhaps not recovered from his head injury to the extent that Benitez had suggested in Friday's press conference, and did not feature in the squad.

The game had started at a fairly leisurely pace before it burst into life with the kind of incident even the cruellest scripwriter would not have dared to insert.

Crouch had already spurned an excellent chance to break his duck, rising like a salmon but heading Steven Gerrard's 12th-minute corner directly at the impressive Pompey goalkeeper Jamie Ashdown.

But 10 minutes later it seemed the beleaguered striker's moment had finally arrived. When referee Peter Walton generously pointed to the spot after Zenden had been obstructed by Andy Griffin, Crouch grabbed the ball with all the confidence of a man looking to seal his hat-trick.

The crowd, generating a thunderous roar that may actually have added to the pressure on the striker's spindly shoulders, could start to envisage a jubilant Crouch carrying out that threat to mark his first goal by launching himself into the Kop.

But after what seemed an age - during which the confidence he had hinted at in grabbing the ball off Djibril Cisse appeared to almost visibly seep away by the second - Crouch stepped up and fired a low shot that Ashdown blocked.

Fortuitously for the penalty-taker, the ball ricocheted into the path of the inrushing Zenden, who headed into the vacant net.

Although Benitez saw little wrong in Crouch taking the penalty afterwards, it seemed more than a little odd that at such a stage of the match Steven Gerrard - having converted his last penalty at Aston Villa two weeks ago - did not simply take the kick himself.

Surely the result takes precedence over an opportunity to remove a monkey off your striker's back, even if that monkey would give King Kong something to think about. Had the match taken a different course after Crouch's miss, the post-match analysis would have been considerably less tolerant of such fecklessness.

As it was, Crouch was able to escape, and what could have been a shattering moment became simply an embarrassment that the £7million man was able to shrug off with a wave to the Kop. A target for virtually everyone else, Crouch is understandably keen to maintain a good relationship with his own, forgiving fans.

To his credit, Crouch dusted himself down and continued to plug away, and five minutes later he was even attempting an ambitious overhead kick that saw his propeller-like right leg reach places that no right leg has done before at Anfield. How he could have done, though, with the kind of fortune that then allowed Cisse to double Liverpool's lead six minutes before half-time.

The Frenchman had been shunted out to the right when Garcia's withdrawal saw Morientes drafted in up front, but if he felt slightly peeved at the time, the Frenchman must have felt eternally grateful when his attempted cross sailed well wide of its intended target - and straight over Ashdown's head.

Cisse's embarrassed face said it all.

The second half saw Liverpool happily rest on the laurels provided by two goals that owed more to fortune than anything else.

The visitors' search for a goal inevitably opened up the game and created just the kind of fertile occasion for Crouch to find the net. Three times such an opportunity presented itself. First he mistimed a tap-in after Morientes' set-up, then he fired gormlessly at Ashdown when Zenden's release had called for a far more cultured finish, before overhitting a delicate lob high into the Anfield Road End.

His effort alone had earned some solace from the spate of near-misses, and with 10 minutes to go Crouch duly found some - albeit back in his more familiar role as provider. His far-post leap headed the ball back into the danger zone after Gerrard's cross, allowing Hyypia to turn the ball into Morientes's path. The Spaniard slotted Liverpool's third and his first Premiership goal of the season.

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Warnock; Gerrard (Josemi 83), Hamann, Zenden, Luis Garcia (Morientes 22); Crouch, Cisse (Alonso 69). Subs: Dudek, Traore. BOOKING: Hamann (foul).

PORTSMOUTH: Ashdown; Griffin, O'Brien, Priske, Vignal; Viafara, Hughes (Skopelitis 74), Taylor, Robert (Vukic 64); O'Neil, LuaLua (Mbesuma 70). Subs: Westerveld, Primus. BOOKING: Viafara (foul).

REFEREE: P Walton (Northamptonshire)

ATT: 44,394


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