Liverpool Echo report
BRAVE words, brave hearts and insufficient reward.
Liverpool proved that their pre-match battlecry was anything but a token gesture last night as, for the second season running, they came within an ace of wiping out a 3-0 European deficit against rocking French opponents.
Second half goals from Robbie Fowler and Karlheinz Riedle put the Reds within sight of seeing off Strasbourg and achieving the impossible at Anfield.
But, as happened against Paris St. Germain last term, they paid the hefty penalty for their woeful first leg, and their UEFA Cup hopes are ended before round three. Prematurely.
Everyone knows the bottom line is that Roy Evans' men have been eliminated by a side to which they were superior, and that it should never have happened.
However, enough criticism has been made of that forgettable night in France, not least by myself and, after such a rousing Reds' display, no further flak is merited.
True, today is a day for contemplating what might have been if luck had proved more favourable, but it's also one for praising Liverpool's players, management and staff for giving their marvellous supporters what they had been craving.
Performances like this make Liverpudlians stick their chests out with pride, make them firmly believe that there is a squad capable of achieving glory - and give them every right to expect more of the same.
Evans' lads played this just right: no kamikaze first half tactics and a second half of relentless bombardment which, on another occasion, would have at least forced extra time. All of which goes to show how good they can be when they are focussed and committed.
This was always going to be a tall order for Liverpool, but never did they abandon hope in a match where a combination of fine goalkeeping, wretched luck and gutsy defending contrived to thwart them. Riedle's 55th minute introduction was significant, and one cannot help wondering with hindsight what damage would have been caused had he started.
Strasbourg were terrified of the German, whose experience and aeriel presence signalled their discomfort. Riedle is clever. He knows how to win free-kicks. In fact, in Europe he's invaluable, and his absence from the first leg probably proved decisive.
I'm not sure whether the penalty he won for Olivier Dacourt's 64th minute challenge was a valid one, but it sufficiently convinced the Norwegian referee. Just what Liverpool needed, as was Fowler's expert conversion, which opened the scoring.
It's just a pity the Reds hadn't forced the breakthrough in the opening period when Alexander Vencel twice saved from Jamie Redknapp, Dacourt made a goal-saving tackle on Oyvind Leonhardsen and Fowler hooked a shot over.
Fowler, however, deserved a goal just before the break when he almost surprised Vencel with a stunning 45 yard lob which dipped under the crossbar.
This was a piece of genius, and the Strasbourg keeper deserves credit for back-pedalling and springing superbly to push the ball to safety.
No goals at half time, but still there was hope. Manager Evans gambled by calling on Riedle and Patrik Berger to replace his full-backs for all-out attack. It was certainly worth the risk.
Both had hardly been on the field when Paul Ince forced Vencel to parry his drive, only for Michael Owen to stab the rebound wide.
Liverpool's pressure was relentless, with Redknapp and Ince monsters in midfield. Redknapp did himself the power of good with a show of skill, aggression and, sometimes, nastiness - all of which was essential.
Strasbourg, fairly adventurous in the first half but penned back in the second, struggled to repel the Reds' raids. They hoped for a period of respite, but there was none.
Indeed, Fowler's penalty so intensified the pressure that goalbound efforts from Owen and Berger struck Ince and Fowler, respectively, as bodies swarmed into the Strasbourg area.
When the agile Vencel stuck out a foot to deny a Steve McManaman header, we took it as a sign that Liverpool had said their last word. We did, but they didn't, for almost instantly, McManaman headed across goal for Riedle to nod home with six minutes remaining.
They were six desperate minutes, where adrenalin took care of nerves and where there was no place for the faint-hearted.
But sadly, once again, the Reds had set themselves too great a task and Strasbourg clung on to celebrate their second European exploit.
That said, Liverpool have now set their standard for the season. They know, as we know, that if they play like this regularly then they will have few problems. It's up to them.
LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): James; Jones (Riedle 55), Kvarme, Matteo, Bjornebye (Berger 51); McManaman, Redknapp, Ince, Leonhardsen; Owen, Fowler. Subs (not used): McAteer, Nielsen, Harkness, Ruddock, Murphy.
STRASBOURG (3-5-2): Vencel; Ismael (Rott 52), Suchoparek, Okpara; Baticle, Dacourt, M'Ghoghi, Kinet (Rabbah 57), Collet; Conteh, Zitelli (Micelli 88). Subs (not used): Arpinon, Klein, Keller, Avril.
GOALS: 1-0: Fowler (64, pen); 2-0: Riedle (84).
BOOKINGS: Ince, Collet, M'Ghoghi, Rott (fouls).
REFEREE: Rune Pedersen (Norway).
MAN-OF-THE-MATCH: Jamie Redknapp.
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