McMANN OF WAR; Liverpool 0, Sheffield Wednesday 1: Atherton anchors down super Steve.
The only time the normally elusive raider was able to slip the handcuffs was on his way to the players' bar - after Atherton had been stopped for an interview by the Match of the Day crew.
The Sheffield Wednesday skipper's superb man-marking job reduced McManaman to a pique of frustration while raising a worrying question mark over Liverpool's title aspirations. Now the message is spreading around the Premiership: Stop McManaman and you stop Liverpool.
Manager Roy Evans was left angered by his team's inability to cope with their key player shackled.
Liverpool have enjoyed the reputation over the years of being the thinking man's team.
But they were out-thought and out-fought as well-organised Wednesday celebrated only their second win and second clean-sheet at Anfield in 33 years.
After free-flowing displays against Arsenal and Spurs had installed them as title favourites, Liverpool exasperated another Anfield full-house with their failure to break down Wednesday's rearguard. It's becoming an all-too-familiar story.
Liverpool can out-play the best but constantly under-achieve against teams they should beat if their title credentials are to be taken seriously.
They have so many talented players they should not be a one-man team but that's how it's looking.
McManaman limped off early in the Mersey derby and Liverpool scraped an unconvincing point; he missed the Wimbledon game and they were booed off after another draw; he was marked out of it on Saturday and they lost for the first time in 27 home games stretching back to last November.
Evans emerged from a dressing room inquest to say: "Macca is important to us but I would hate to think we are just a one-man team.
"If he's tightly marked we've got to use our heads more, work extra-hard, have better movement, give ourselves other options and create better avenues.
"But we didn't do that. We weren't up to it on the day and that's a worry. Other teams will try and employ similar tactics and we will need to show more guile to break it down.
"We weren't sharp enough. We started slowly and once you start like that, it's very difficult to up the tempo.
"We've been made favourites and maybe some of us are guilty of believing it."
Atherton admitted he was mentally and physically exhausted after his sentry duty. He said: "It's a tough job and one I don't particularly like doing.
"But it had to be done so I stuck at it and I managed to win the battle on the day.
"McManaman's so good on and off the ball it's a 90-minute battle of wits because he's got so many tricks. You can't afford to leave him alone for a second.
"You come off at the end physically and mentally tired. It's not just a case of running around and stopping him. You've got to be alert to where he is, what's happening, and try to stay with him all the time.
"I suppose after this, the word will be out round the Premiership how we did it. It will encourage other teams to adopt the same approach.
"But it's all very well trying to stop McManaman but they've got other good players as well."
Liverpool's problem on Saturday was that their other potential matchwinners were also subdued.
Robbie Fowler was kept on a tight-rein by a vintage Des Walker display while Patrik Berger was denied the space to penetrate with his darting runs.
Wednesday's engine room trio of Mark Pembridge, Graham Hyde and goalscorer Guy Whittingham refused to allow John Barnes and Michael Thomas to dictate midfield.
Despite the attentions of his "sentry", McManaman still could have had a hat-trick, having one header saved, seeing another hit the bar, before Des Walker's deflection of Jason McAteer's cross denied him a tap-in.
Kevin Pressman denied Fowler the goals he needed for his century with two magnificent saves - the first after Jason McAteer's long-range lob had hit the bar. He also kept out a Berger rocket.
Seven points dropped out of the last three games at home is bad enough for Liverpool.
But with their main title rivals also spluttering, they have missed a great chance to seize the initiative in what is shaping up to be a wide open championship race.
Defender Mark Wright admitted: "We've let ourselves down. The supporters are frustrated, so are the management, but the players feel it the worst, it's our living.
"None of us will be walking out of here, shrugging our shoulders and saying we'll try and put it right in the next game. We are absolutely gutted.
"Wednesday did a job on us. They marked Macca tightly but it shouldn't all be about him.
"The onus should be on other players to take responsibility.
"We've set the season up well...now lost a game we were expected to win." That man Atherton even played a part in Wednesday's 22nd minute goal. He cut out Jason McAteer's clearance, Benito Carbone set up Pembridge and Whittingham stuck out his right boot to deflect in a shot that was going wide.
Basement club Nottingham Forest and struggling Middlesb rough are next into Anfield.
Nothing less than six points will do for Liverpool.
Man Of the match: Peter Atherton.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
Pressman's save from a Fowler header after McAteer's lob had hit the bar.
MOAN OF THE MATCH Liverpool manager Roy Evans lamented: "We didn't use our heads."
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Dec 9, 1996|
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