Blundering Bruce Grobbelaar was sent off after 83 minutes in Russia and the men from Moscow capitalised with two goals in the last seven minutes.
Grobbelaar was shown the red card for a professional foul that also gave away the penalty which saw Spartak regain the lead after Liverpool had twice equalised.
And with the Anfield side down to ten men and defender David Burrows in goal the Russians added a fourth goal just two minutes from the end to leave Liverpool an even tougher task in the return leg.
Grobbelaar's dismissal capped a dreadful display which threw away all the hard work his team mates had done to claw themselves back into the game, played in sleet and snow at the Olympic Stadium.
Liverpool were unnerved right from the start and fell behind after only seven minutes when Pisarev exploited Liverpool's square back four to race free and beat Grobbelaar with a low shot. It was a swift and deadly counter attack by the Russians after Ian Rush had given the ball away on the halfway line and then skipper Mark Wright missed a vital tackle in midfield.
Burrows vainly appealed for an offside flag against the Spartak striker, but it was the England defender who was actually playing him on side and he could only watch as the goal went in.
Grobbelaar twice unsettled his defence when he went careering out of his area in a bid to clear Spartak attacks, but only served to create chaos within his own ranks.
Luckily for him, though, some desperate defending and wasteful finishing by the Russians spared Grobbelaar from any real punishment.
Liverpool's Mike Marsh was booked for a foul as the pressure mounted and Jamie Redknapp followed him.
But Liverpool went in at half-time somewhat fortunate to be just one goal behind against the Russian Cup winners.
In the second half Liverpool looked brighter and Don Hutchison should have done better than fire over the bar when well placed and then Redknapp saw a 25-yard free-kick punched away by the Russian goalkeeper. And in the 67th minute Liverpool pulled level when Mark Walters crossed from the left and skipper Mark Wright forced the ball over the line from close range.
But Grobbelaar had not learned his lesson from his wayward antics of the first half and two minutes later gifted the home side back the lead. He waited too long on the ball as he tried to clear a back pass and succeeded only in steering the ball to Valery Karpin who gratefully accepted the opportunity to fire into the vacant net.
Liverpool manfully tried once more to wipe out the deficit and Walters was left shaking his head in despair after seeing a 20-yard thunderbolt rebounding off the post. But in the 78th minute Liverpool were level when Steve McManaman broke into the area and fired home a left foot shot from the tightest of angles for only his second goal of the season.
It should have been enough for Liverpool to go into the return with confidence with the tie level and two away goals in the bag.
But then Grobbelaar intervened once again to give away the penalty and be banished for his sins.
Karpin stepped up after a long delay, in which Burrows snatched the goalkeeper's jersey to take over from Grobbelaar, and duly converted the spot-kick. But Burrows guessed the right direction and came agonisingly close to pulling off what would have been a remarkable save.
Liverpool substitute Ronnie Rosenthal went sprawling into the area in the dying minutes to spark desperate Liverpool pleas for a penalty, but their cries were in vain. Manager Graeme Souness reacted angrily on the touchlines and clashed with an official in an incident that could bring disciplinary measures. And his mood was even blacker as Liverpool failed to close out the game and contributed further to their own downfall by conceding a fourth goal when Igor Ledyakhov beat Burrows from close range.
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