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By ESPN Staff

Bad omens for 1980s throwback Aidy

Welcome to the 1980s. There was Kenny Dalglish on the pitch, Ian McCulloch on the PA and a Watford team playing ugly, long-ball football.

Except, of course, in one crucial respect - Liverpool were usually champions back then. Now they are not and, despite a fourth successive league win, they are unlikely to become so anytime soon.

Until Craig Bellamy broke the deadlock, it was an afternoon made for shortened fuses and cricked necks as the assembled masses waited for the ball to descend from the Anfield atmosphere. It must have been enough to make Dalglish, accepting a charity cheque at half-time, glad he had retired.

A game that was crying out for the craft that was once his hallmark, was ultimately decided by pace, in the shape of Bellamy. Better that, though, than sheer muscle.

While we were being transported back two decades, however, it was notable that, from Graham Taylor's undeniably direct team, there was a player with sufficient skill to become a Liverpool legend: John Barnes. If he has a 21st-century equivalent, it could only be Ben Foster, who kept the scoreline respectable for Adrian Boothroyd's team.

Two days after Watford's permanently chirpy manager finally admitted his team are in a relegation battle (while bizarrely pronouncing that he isn't a realist), his team showed why.

Their methods weren't refined, innovative or remotely accomplished. Thankfully, they weren't successful either. It has made Watford the footballing equivalent of another ugly anachronism, John Prescott, an unwanted throwback to an unlamented era.

Boothroyd, who can speak with the one-eyed fervour of a religious zealot, opted for a rather more ungodly analogy. 'We keep getting back up because we're competing with the Muhammad Alis of this world and we're only a featherweight,' he said.

Much as he makes of Watford's spirit - and the word 'competing' must have been used half-a-dozen times - it is not enough. Watford's meagre goal tally (11) shows as much. So does their finishing. 'We've got to take our chances,' he added. Most, however, were half-chances at best.

The notable exception came when Jose Reina spilled Ashley Young's cross and Al Bangura volleyed some way over. Even when shooting, Watford could not stop hitting long balls, it appeared.

But it was an indication that long-ball football is a disease that can become infectious. At times Liverpool responded in kind and, as if it were a competition, no one kicked the ball higher than the combative Jamie Carragher.

'They were really physical and they worked really hard and it was difficult to find the space and the understanding between players,' said Rafael Benitez.

Much of that space existed behind Watford's high defensive line - another remnant of the 1980s - and Bellamy was the ideal man to exploit it. His goal, his fourth in as many Premiership games, was deserved, too. It came when Steven Gerrard accelerated on to Dirk Kuyt's chested pass and slipped a reverse ball to the Welshman to dink his shot over Foster.

Then Liverpool found themselves in a familiar position. One-goal leads have appeared precarious of late, and as Benitez said: 'We needed to score the second goal. We had some chances on the counter-attack and then we killed the game.' It came with two minutes to go, Xabi Alonso curling his shot into the top corner from 25 yards.

Not surprisingly, Benitez's major concern before then had been dead-ball situations. If Watford's Championship promotion was won by pace and power, the formula has been uncomplicated further since then. Simplification has hardly been beneficial. This is football stripped back to the basics, reduced to a series of set pieces: it is as though an American Football coach was in charge.

Instead, it is Boothroyd, at the forefront of a generation of new managers, albeit with a rather old-fashioned approach straight out of Charles Hughes' handbook. Watford's remarkable progress in his first 15 months at charge suggested a long career in the top flight beckoned. We have to hope not.

Because, if the Premiership's youngest manager represents the future of English football, we should all be afraid. Very afraid. Because, in terms of the style of play, the 1980s represented a nadir for English football.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Craig Bellamy - Producing the form that turned Blackburn from relegation strugglers to top-six finishers. His pace has given Liverpool an extra dimension and his finishing is giving them more cutting edge right now.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: Diving, timewasting and a general lack of sportsmanship are often blamed on foreign players. Not today: Jordan Stewart used up at least two minutes writing on the ground after contact with Jermaine Pennant's arm that lacked either malice or force. After Liverpool put the ball out, Watford's interpretation of returning the ball was a 70-yard boot downfield.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: The days of rotation may be over. Bellamy's form seems to have convinced Benitez he has a strike partnership. He said: We know his quality, we know his pace. It was our idea to use him running behind the defence, creating chances for team-mates. He has more confidence and now the understanding with Kuyt is good.'

WATFORD VERDICT: There was no doubt who their man of the match was, but that told a tale in itself. 'Ben [Foster]s a terrific goalkeeper and I think he's a future England number one,' said Boothroyd. Bellamy, Kuyt and Alonso, all denied by him, are unlikely to disagree. Nor would Danny Shittu, spared an own goal by his reflexes. It may amount to a cunning plan by Sir Alex Ferguson: loaning Foster to a club where he will get plenty of practice.

THE OMENS AREN'T GOOD: Watford have the unwanted distinction of being bottom at Christmas. In 14 previous Premiership seasons, only West Bromwich Albion, two years ago, have propped up the table then and survived. Don't bank on Watford emulating them.


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