HAVING waited almost a year to make his Liverpool debut, Mark Gonzalez wasted no time in introducing himself to Anfield last night.
In doing so, the Chile winger justified Rafael Benitez's steadfast faith in his talents by helping Liverpool take a significant step towards the lucrative group stages of the Champions League.
Gonzalez had been forced to spend six months on loan at Real Sociedad last season after failing to earn a work permit following his move from Albacete. But within two minutes of making his first appearance as a Liverpool player from the substitutes' bench, he was in the right place to earn Benitez's side a victory that could ultimately prove to be their most valuable of the season.
Liverpool have made a habit of doing things the hard way in these Champions League qualifiers. Although progress was assured against Grazer AK and CSKA Sofia in the last two years, nerves were frayed by second-leg defeats at Anfield.
And for much of last night's tense third qualifying round first leg encounter against Maccabi Haifa, another home loss appeared increasingly likely as Liverpool continually fluffed their opening lines and the Israel champions lived up to their reputation of being tricky opponents.
Benitez regards this tie as potentially Liverpool's most important game of the season, but, while markedly improved on the dismal showings in their recent friendlies, the Anfield team were again largely underwhelming.
A continuing failure to over-exert Maccabi goalkeeper Nir Davidovitch only provided further credence to Benitez's pursuit of Feyenoord striker Dirk Kuyt. Clearly, the change the manager hopes his clutch of summer signings will bring isn't going to happen overnight.
Ironic, then, that Liverpool's newcomers should have been among their better performers last night. Like Gonzalez, Craig Bellamy enjoyed a goalscoring debut, equalising in the 33rd minute after Gustavo Boccoli had taken advantage of some slack Liverpool defending to fire Maccabi into a shock lead.
Jermaine Pennant, meanwhile, demonstrated why Benitez was so keen to secure his services with an industrious display down the right. Too often last night, however, his fine deliveries were wasted as Liverpool struggled to populate the penalty area in sufficient numbers.
With Liverpool failing to score in the recent defeats to Grasshoppers and FSV Mainz, Benitez had opted to start with Gerrard pushed into an advanced role behind Bellamy in attack. The tactical switch failed to convince, though, and served only to lessen the threat of his skipper who, in mitigation, is some way short of optimum fitness following his exertions at the World Cup.
Such has the emotive debate been over the venue of the return leg later this month, much of the attention had been taken away from last night's encounter. The travelling Israeli support unfurled a banner stating 'You'll Never Walk Alone? Chikenpool'. The spelling might have been awry, but their feelings on the matter were obvious.
Given the importance of the occasion and the lack of time together during pre-season, it was perhaps understandable Liverpool took a while to settle, John Arne Riise registering the first effort of note on 18 minutes with a 25-yard shot dragged harmlessly wide.
A fudged free-kick moments later eventually fell to Jamie Carragher who forced Maccabi goalkeeper Davidovitch into a save at his near post, but it was the sight of Pennant racing down the right flank and delivering yet another decent cross into an underpopulated penalty area that summed up Liverpool's lack of attacking threat in the first half-hour.
That was brought into sharp focus when the Israelis took a surprise but deserved lead on 29 minutes. Maccabi had already demonstrated they were a tidy counter-attacking team with a few early breaks, and this time they reaped their reward. Boccoli raced forward out of midfield and fed Roberto Colautti, who turned Sami
Hyypia too easily before returning the ball to Boccoli who skipped beyondRiise and slotted expertly past Pepe Reina.
However, parity was restored within four minutes.
Pennant left Maccabi left-back Haim Magrashvili in his wake but this time found support inside the area in the form of Gerrard, whose laid the ball off neatly to Mohamed Sissoko on the edge of the area.
The Mali international released a low piledriver from 20 yards that Davidovitch could only parry, with Bellamy the quickest to react by firing into the roof of the net from six yards.
Remarkably, it was Liverpool's first goal in European competition in six hours and 34 minutes after blanks in both legs against Benfica and group games with Betis and Chelsea last season.
Boudweijn Zenden, in his first appearance since suffering cruciate ligament damage last November, shot wastefully wide from Gerrard's pass four minutes after the interval, the winger's last meaningful action before being replaced by Luis Garcia.
Maccabi, though, were comfortable and came close to regaining the lead on 61 minutes when Colautti rose above Steve Finnan at the far post to head just wide.
But Liverpool were gradually gaining momentum and wrested control of the game in the final half-hour. Crouch, on for Bellamy, nodded at goalkeeper Davidovitch and then headed a Finnan cross narrowly wide.
No home player was on hand to apply the finishing touch to some Garcia trickery, and then Davidovitch produced a fine save to keep out Pennant's deflected free-kick from 20 yards before Garcia had a decent shout for a penalty waved away by referee Stark.
That seemed to be that, until Gonzalez, two minutes after coming on, drifted in unmarked at the far post to control Alonso's deep pass and deliver an expert finish beyond the onrushing Davidovitch.
There was still enough time for Reina to have to make a smart save with his legs to deny Colautti, more evidence the tie is very much alive when the second leg takes place in 13 days' time.
Benitez's side will discover by tomorrow lunchtime just where that game will be held, with Kiev the most likely venue.
What's for certain is that, no matter where the game is played, Liverpool will have to play a lot better than this to progress. Perhaps, as Gonzalez discovered, the best things will come to those that wait.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Mohamed Sissoko - The Mali international delivered a performance of trademark perpetual motion, and was unfortunate to pick up a booking
LIVERPOOL: Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise, Gerrard (Gonzalez 85), Sissoko, Alonso, Zenden (Luis Garcia 55), Pennant, Bellamy (Crouch 65). Subs: Dudek, Kromkamp, Paletta, Peltier. BOOKED: Sissoko (foul).
MACCABI HAIFA: Davidovitch, Harazi, Olarra, Keinan, Magralishvili, Boccoli, Anderson, Xavier, Masudi (Meshumar 90), Colautti, Katan (Melicsohn 85). Subs: Al Madon, Kanan, Swan, Hemad, Gazal.
BOOKED: Magralishvili, Colautti (fouls).
REFEREE: Wolfgang Stark (Germany). ATT: 40,058
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