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Football: Anfield's leader of men buoys cup hopes; Liverpool 1 Watford 0.

Byline: ANDY HUNTER at Anfield

BY EMPLOYING men to do the boys' job Rafael Benitez left no-one in any doubt last night about his determination to mark his inaugural season at Liverpool with silverware.

Yet those ambitions are now precariously placed after the men struggled to match the achievements of the boys in the Carling Cup this season.

Steven Gerrard, of course, lived up to the responsibility Benitez bestowed on his senior staff to give Liverpool a slender semi-final first-leg lead over Watford at Anfield.

But elsewhere the strongest team Benitez has fielded in this season's competition produced Liverpool's lamest performance and endured the most difficult encounter of the adventure so far.

Not even holders Middlesbrough, an in-form Tottenham or Millwall at their vile Den have posed the Anfield club as many problems as the struggling Coca Cola Championship club did.

And though it was bizarre to see defeated semi-finalists celebrate with more gusto than the victors on the final whistle they had good reason for their unexpected confidence.

But for wayward finishing and critical late defending Watford would have tasted a much sweeter result than this narrow defeat.

But Liverpool's narrow victory means they Vicarage Road will host an all-or-nothing semi-final in a fortnight nonetheless, and Benitez has much to ponder given how his established stars failed to match the conviction of the youngsters who have seized their chance to shine this season.

Benitez's theory was straightforward for his senior stars - establish a formidable first-leg lead and get the second leg off for good behaviour. In practice, however, Watford were in no mood or condition to comply.

With a rigid 4-5-1 formation and a cup spirit that Liverpool struggled to match, with several senior figures making their first appearance in the competition this season, the Coca-Cola Championship side were not the pushovers Benitez hoped - but never expected - they would be.

Indeed, Watford visibly grew in confidence and adventure as the first half progressed, in contrast to a home display that deteriorated as the interval loomed, and enjoyed an equally dominant finale. Too many idle flicks and passes went astray from Liverpool as they handed the incentive to their grateful visitors and were left thanking Watford wastefulness in front of Jerzy Dudek for the fact they remained on level terms at the break.

Florent Sinama-Pongolle volleyed over in the 14th minute from one of several inviting right-wing crosses by Antonio Nunez and strike partner Neil Mellor forced former Liverpool loan keeper Paul Jones into a rare save with a header from Dietmar Hamann's delivery 10 minutes later.

But it was Watford who claimed the clearest and greatest number of first-half chances as they flourished through Paul Devlin on their right-hand flank.

The former Birmingham midfielder provided a constant supply to the Watford attack, but fortunately for Liverpool Hameur Bouazza twice allowed them to escape when left unmarked in front of goal.

The Watford winger miscued a glorious 17th-minute invitation so badly that his shot ended back at Devlin's feet, and from the return cross Brynjar Gunnarsson went close with a header that drew a fine save from Dudek.

Four minutes later Devlin again picked out Bouazza unmarked in the area and though his connection was cleaner the direction was straight at Jamie Carragher and Liverpool survived again.

Anfield's frustration at a disjointed and occasionally halfhearted performance became increasingly obvious as Watford continued to break with ease and a 39th-minute corner that Luis Garcia wasted before allowing Gavin Mahon to win a comfortable 50-50 encapsulated the opening 45 minutes.

The only colour in the first half was provided by the ludicrous amount of yellow balloons released by the Watford end before kick-off and which lay burst and scattered all over the turf thereafter. A stupid idea that made Anfield look as though the market had just left town.

Benitez displayed the ruthless streak that has been rarely seen at Anfield, though is always telling when it is employed - as El Hadji Diouf and Anthony Le Tallec can testify - in dispensing with the youngsters who had car-ried Liverpool into the semi-finals. But his senior staff must also have witnessed a vivid illustration of his dark side at the interval judging by their immediate response at the start of the second half.

Led, inevitably, by Gerrard, they finally began to exert their superiority from the restart, pressing Watford deeper and exposing flaws in the visiting defence in the process. But, despite Mellor forcing Jones into a low save from Gerrard's through ball in the 51st minute, it was the introduction of Milan Baros two minutes later that really provided the impetus for Liverpool's improvement.

Within three minutes of replacing Mellor the Czech striker, making his first appearance since Boxing Day, carved open the Watforddefence with speed and intelligent running off the ball and Liverpool edged into a crucial lead.

Sinama-Pongolle released Baros down the left and with Watford appealing for off side he delivered a dangerous cross towards Garcia that Jones could only palm towards his own penalty spot. Gerrard is the last man the keeper would have wanted to see powering towards him as he looked up from the floor, and the Liverpool captain duly despatched his side-foot finish into the top corner and over the line via the head of Neil Cox.

Baros continued to unnerve the visitors and almost added a second with a low shot on the turn while Gerrard forced Jones into a fine save as Liverpool looked to add comfort to their slender advantage.

But Watford responded well to the opener and it took two immaculate tackles from Djimi Traore to prevent a deserved equaliser.

After Bouazza had wasted yet another fine opportunity when played in behind Steve Finnan by Heidar Helguson the Liverpool centre-half needed his telescopic legs to prevent Watford captain Mahon skipping clear in the 74th minute.

And he produced an even better challenge a minute from time when lone striker Helguson looked to have broken through with only Dudek to beat.

On the final whistle the beaten board of directors leapt into the air in celebration while the Watford fans rejoiced in anticipation of a 2-0 victory in a fortnight.

Premature certainly, but on this evidence not without foundation.

This was anything but the comfortable passage Benitez had hoped for.

Cardiff, though second home to a Liverpool side chasing its third League Cup Final appearance in four years, is a long way off yet.

MATCH FACTS

LIVERPOOL: Dudek, Finnan, Carragher, Traore, Riise, Nunez, Gerrard, Hamann (Biscan 71), Luis Garcia, Mellor (Baros 53), Sinama-Pongolle (Warnock 78). Subs: Potter, Harrison.

REFEREE: S Dunn (Gloucestershire). ATT: 35, 739.

WATFORD: Jones, Chambers, Cox, Demerit, Darlington, Devlin, Gunnarsson, Ardley (Blizzard 81), Mahon, Bouazza, Helguson. Subs: Chamberlain, Dyer, Webber, Doyley.

BOOKING: Chambers.

NEXT GAME: Liverpool v Manchester United, Barclays

Premiership, Saturday 12. 45pm

CAPTION(S):

John Arne Riise and Watford's Paul Devlin battle for the ball; Pictures: MARTIN BIRCHALL and MATTHEW ASHTON; Neil Mellor attempts to claim control of the ball; Milan Baros finds the net, but his goal was disallowed; Steven Gerrard scores Liverpool's vital goal, with his shot going in off the head of Watford defender Neil Cox
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jan 12, 2005
Words:1191
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