Liverpool win 5-0 on aggregate

LIVERPOOL celebrated the city’s 800th birthday with the annual present of Champions League qualification last night.

The lessons of previous close calls at home to Grazer and CSKA Sofia were finally heeded as Rafael Benitez’s side swatted aside a limited Toulouse side to unlock a £12million treasure chest by progressing to the lucrative group stages.

Leading the festivities was Peter Crouch who, reinstated to the starting line-up for only the second time this season, continued his love affair with the Champions League by sending Liverpool on their way with a 19th-minute opener.

It was his eighth goal in his last 10 starts in the competition and the perfect message to Benitez, who has thus far restricted the striker to just seven minutes of Premier League action this season.

Indeed, Crouch could easily have claimed a hat-trick before Sami Hyypia banished any lingering doubts by heading home four minutes after half-time.

Dirk Kuyt also posted a reminder of his own prowess by creating Crouch’s goal and netting a well-taken brace in the closing moments to ensure the scoreline reflected the home team’s dominance.

It all served to underline the attacking riches at Benitez’s disposal, with Liverpool’s insistence on going forward even with qualification safe a sign to the manager of his squad’s collective desire to keep their place in the team.

Liverpool had won seven and drawn one of their previous eight home meetings with French opposition, and there was little chance of that unbeaten run being threatened by Toulouse.

At least the visitors made more of a game of it than a fortnight ago, briefly stretching a home defence that was without the talismanic Jamie Carragher.

But Liverpool’s 50th European Cup victory at Anfield was secured in the composed, professional manner that has been a highlight of their encouraging start to the season.

It made light of the fact they were without the services of both Carragher and Steven Gerrard for the first time in 103 European games, a sequence stretching back 10 years.

The absence of Gerrard and the benched Xabi Alonso allowed Momo Sissoko to build on his showing at Sunderland at the weekend. But it was midfield partner Javier Mascherano who, as in Toulouse, was the game’s outstanding performer with an imposing display in the centre of the park.

Besides Crouch and Kuyt, Mascherano was run close by Yossi Benayoun, tidy and industrious on his first Anfield start, and the again impressive Alvaro Arbeloa.

Anfield had united before kick-off in an emotional tribute to Rhys Jones, the 11-year-old Everton supporter tragically murdered last week in Croxteth.

With his family standing on the touchline, mother Melanie draped in an Everton scarf and father Stephen and older brother Owen wearing Everton shirts, the public address system played the theme to Z Cars – the traditional Goodison tune – before a charged You’ll Never Walk Alone was followed by a period of applause.

Liverpool wore black armbands in memory of Rhys, while Benitez moved to embrace his family before the game started.

The Anfield manager made seven changes from the team that won 2-0 at the Stadium of Light, handing a debut to Argentine left-winger Leto, a summer arrival from Lanus.

Leto’s transfer had been delayed by passport issues and meant his only previous experience as a Liverpool player before last night came during the friendly against Shanghai Shenhua in Rotterdam earlier this month.

And Leto – 21 tomorrow – acquitted himself well enough to suggest he can become a genuine option to Benitez down the left.

Toulouse had been surprisingly negative in the first leg, electing to persist with only one up front even after falling behind to Andriy Voronin’s spectacular strike.

Benitez was expecting more of the same last night, but Toulouse coach Elie Baup hoodwinked many by starting with both Johan Elmander, the French team’s prime danger a fortnight ago, and Andre Pierre Gignac in attack.

It certainly caught Liverpool by surprise with the visitors enjoying the better of the opening moments, although they failed to cause Pepe Reina any great concern.

But Benitez’s side slowly found their rhythm and, after Leto had dragged a shot wide and Kuyt’s header was turned behind by Toulouse goalkeeper Nicolas Douchez, Liverpool went ahead on 19 minutes.

Benayoun lost the ball to Nicolas Dieuze but instantly won back possession to feed Kuyt, whose cross from the right was met the telescopic leg of Crouch ahead of Toulouse right-back Mohamed Fofana to score at the far post.

Crouch then nearly capitalised on a slip from Herita Ilunga but dragged his shot wide, before twice demonstrating why, despite his great height, heading remains a shortcoming in his game, nodding Leto’s left-wing cross over when unmarked and making an even greater pig’s ear of Arbeloa’s delivery from the opposite flank.

Kuyt headed wide Benayoun’s cross as Liverpool threatened to fritter away chances to make safe the victory.

The hosts didn’t have it all their own way in the first half, though. With nothing to lose, Toulouse threw men forward and Gignac twice caused Anfield hearts to flutter, missing his kick at the crucial moment after being fed possession following Reina’s hashed clearance and then racing in behind Daniel Agger but seeing a goalbound shot blocked by Arbeloa.

Fofana didn’t get enough on Paulo Cesar’s corner to test Reina before Hyypia, skippering the side despite suffering a broken nose on Saturday, showed the Toulouse man how it was done four minutes after the interval, heading home completely unmarked from Benayoun’s right-wing corner.

Liverpool instantly eased up on the gas but kept creating the best chances. Kuyt nearly scored when heading a Crouch cross wide and then saw a piledriver deflected on to the crossbar.

Fantastic skill from Crouch should have earned the striker his second of the game but he volleyed over after expertly bringing the ball under his control.

Kuyt then finally netted his first goal of the season three minutes from time, the Dutchman exchanging passes with compatriot Ryan Babel before finishing clinically into the bottom corner.

And Kuyt completed the scoring with the last kick of the match, running on to Benayoun’s clever throughball and clipping the ball over Douchez.

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Hyypia, Agger (Finnan 81), Riise; Benayoun, Momo Sissoko (Lucas 68), Mascherano, Leto ( Babel 75); Crouch, Kuyt. Subs: Itandje, Alonso, Pennant, Torres.

TOULOUSE (4-1-3-2): Douchez; Fofana, Cetto, Ilunga, Mathieu (Moussa Sissoko 82); Dieuze; Cesar, Siriex, Emana (Fabinho 76); Elmander, Gignac (Bergougnoux 54). Subs: Riou, Jonsson, Mansare, Batlles.

REFEREE: Wolfgang Stark (Germany).

ATT: 43,118.

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