Liverpool Echo report

WHEN Nick Barmby left Everton, he cited Liverpool's European involvement as a major incentive to move across Stanley Park. And after last night, he will be more convinced than ever he called it right.

The former Goodison favourite continued to show just why Gerard Houllier was prepared to spend ?6million to lure him to Anfield.

He scored the decisive goal Рthanks largely to a moment of sublime skill from England team-mate Michael Owen Рto give Liverpool a valuable advantage ahead of the return leg.

And, though it was no more than a subtext on the day, an English victory in the capital city of Romania helped to make up for recent notable defeats at the hands of the Romanian national side.

Both Owen and Barmby were involved in England's Euro 2000 squad which lost to Romania in the group stages but this was a night for Liverpool to saviour.

Rapid were lucky not to lose by a greater margin and could not be described as anything better than average.

Liverpool started with Owen and Emile Heskey in tandem up front while Christian Ziege and Bernard Diomede were handed their first full games for the club.

Liverpool suffered some rocky moments early on. Five minutes into the match Ziege's ill-judged backpass to Markus Babbel was given away by the German- an acting centreback in Sami Hyppia's absence to Pancu, who whipped in a dangerous low cross to the near post which Rigobert Song hacked to safety.

Ziege, who seemed to drift in-field despite being deployed ostensibly as a left-back, showed his ability going forwards moments later, sending in a smart ball from the left for Barmby. He threw himself and connected with a header but goalkeeper Lucescu gratefully clasped the glanced effort.

Liverpool were slow getting into their rhythm with a litany of unforced errors in the early stages.

With 15 minutes on the clock, Rapid's Frasineanu spotted Liverpool keeper Sander Westerveld off his line and tried an audacious Beckhamesque lob, only to see the ball sail over the bar.

It was a quiet night for Westerveld and Рdespite the evidence of recent performances and doubts over his ability to deal with high balls РRapid didn't trouble him with crosses or from set-pieces.

Nick Barmby rattled the woodwork with a thunderous effort midway through the half after linking up with Owen.

But Barmby made the breakthrough 29 minutes into the game, but the goal was a product of an unselfish Owen.

The little England striker was released by debutant Ziege's pass into space. Owen, as if mocking fears that his hamstring troubles could resurface, first dummied Stanciu and then accelerated away from him.

Owen shimmied his way towards goal, jinking through the forlorn challenges of Iencsi and the backtracking skipper Stanciu to find himself in the box.

But rather than go for glory he astutely spotted Barmby in space on his right and laid the ball into the midfielder's path. The home side appealed for an offside flag that never came and Barmby blasted home to make it 1-0.

Barmby looked lively all night combining industrious running with brave tackling and was always likely to pop up in the opposition penalty area.

Heskey, though, saw his night brought to a premature end by a crunching challenge from Mutica in the build up to the goal. He limped off to be replaced by Danny Murphy, whose introduction altered Liverpool's threat up front.

Rapid livewire Frasinenu shot over the bar before the break and Iftodi saw his 25-yard free-kick blocked by the wall after Stephane Henchoz was adjudged to have brought down Pancu, who himself blazed over from the rebound.

Rapid coach Anghel Iordanescu had to change things around if his side were to claw their way back in the second half and he brought on Schumacher for Buta immediately after the interval Рbut it was Liverpool who came closer to making an impact.

Owen had a chance to wrap up the tie seven minutes after the break. Barmby was this time the provider but the striker saw his weak effort easily stopped by the relieved Lucescu.

Rapid went in search of the equaliser but, despite moments of enterprising play, their finishing and general showing in the last third was poor.

A fine crossfield ball from the excellent Dietmar Hamann picked out Barmby in space on the right. He chipped into the box but Murphy's first-time shot was denied by the keeper's outstretched right hand.

At the other end, Babbel was called on to make a desperate near-post clearance but it was the Rapid goal living the more charmed life.

And on 68 minutes Owen fluffed the easiest of chances. Diomede fizzed in a delightful cross to the in-form striker and he looked odds on favourite to finish from three yards but unbelievably failed to make proper contact.

Rapid brought on Buga and Radu but it was the sight of Robbie Fowler being drafted into the action eight minutes from time that was of most significance to the travelling band of Reds fans.

It was Fowler's first outing since he limped off in a pre-season clash with Glentoran in Belfast. He didn't have much opportunity to show his true form as he makes his way back to full fitness.

Liverpool know they must be alert when Rapid visit Anfield for the second leg but, in the final analysis, Barmby's away goal should prove too much for the Romanians to overcome. Houllier's side could have scored more but victory away from home even with a makeshift defence and several injuries Рis pleasing enough.

So, it's not time to think Liverpool's European glory days are back.

Not yet, but at least this is a start.

LIVERPOOL'S England stars at last decided that it was time to start getting their own back on the Romanians.

Twice in recent years Romania have blighted English soccer by knocking them out of international events Рthe most recent being this summer's European Championships.

And two of those England players who suffered most in the Low Countries Michael Owen and Nicky Barmby Рconstructed the goal that gave Liverpool's latest European adventure the right kick-start at the tight little Rapid Stadium.

Owen, who scored and lost in both those two England disasters, set off on a stunning first half run to beat three men and set up Barmby who also played in that Euro 2000 defeat Рto crash home the fine first-half goal which separated the sides.

Gerard Houllier's side did not play brilliantly but didn't have to against an average Rapid side Рand should have scored a hatful after the break in this UEFA Cup first-round first-leg clash.

But the fact that they were so complacent and wasteful at least keeps alive the second leg at Anfield in a fortnight.

Liverpool's heroes were Owen Рwho had an outstanding game up front despite missing two glorious chances РBarmby, for his running and industry, and Dietmar Hamann for a combative game in midfield.

But in the end when the game should have been a stroll Liverpool found themselves with their backs to the wall and hanging on for a victory they deserved and should have had wrapped up long before the end.

Liverpool's injury-ravaged side included Christian Ziege and Bernard Diomede making their first starts for the Anfield club who were finally back in European action after embarrassingly failing to qualify last season.

This steamy night in Bucharest wasn't quite the Champions League that they crave but it's a start on the long haul they face before they can be considered part of Europe's elite again on current form rather than a glittering history.

Ziege's inclusion gave Liverpool plenty of attacking options but all too frequently his roamings left massive gaps behind him and created far too many problems for his colleagues.

Admittedly, he managed a string of dangerous crosses which gave both Emile Heskey and Barmby headed chances that flashed wide.

But at the other end Rigobert Song had to hack away after Daniele Pancu had got clear into Ziege's left-back spot while Sander Westerveld had to be smart to clutch another cross, this time from Marius Maldarasanu.

But in all this defensive uncertainty Liverpool still looked more dangerous on the break with Heskey and Owen working well as a partnership.

The tide was turning in Liverpool's direction when Barmby smashed a 20-yarder against the angle of post and bar while Romania defenders were doing their best to kick Heskey out of the fray.

One tackle by Dorel Mutica left the big England man limping and he was to be forced out of the match after 35 minutes to be replaced by Danny Murphy.

But while Liverpool's bench were showing concern about Heskey his striking partner Owen was creating the goal for Barmby after 29 minutes.

Owen took a pass from Ziege on half way and set off on one of those high-speed trademark runs that took him past three bemused defenders into the heart of the Romanian defence before coolly laying the ball across the box for Barmby to lash into the roof of the net.

Liverpool had the chances early in the second half to finish off the Romanians.

On 52 minutes Murphy and Barmby combined neatly to put Owen clear in the box but the sort of chance the little striker has been scoring with his eyes shut recently crept away from him as he allowed Razvan Lucescu to smother his shot.

Ten minutes later a fine long ball from Hamann put Barmby away on the right and his ball back for Murphy ended with a shot that Lucescu tipped on to the bar and over at full stretch.

Then Owen missed from just three yards when he failed to get a proper connection on a Diomede cross after 65 minutes.

At this point Liverpool were cruising through the Romanian defence finding space down both flanks Рand they wasted a big opportunity to bag a hatful of goals.

The amount of space that Barmby was being allowed on the right along with Owen's intelligent front play presented Liverpool with the opportunity to stamp their authority on the game.

That they squandered so much good position and possession meant they spent the final minutes on a knife-edge protecting a slender lead that should have been so much bigger.

RAPID BUCHAREST: Lucescu, Stanciu, Frasineanu, Buta, Iftodi (Buga 73), Constantin (Radu 60), Maldarasanu, Pancu, Mutica, Iencsi, Isaila, Buga (Schumacher 46). Subs: Radulescu, Chirica, Constantinovicr, Bundea.

LIVERPOOL: Westerveld, Song, Henchoz, Babbel, Ziege (Traore 84), Barmby, Carragher, Hamann, Diomede, Owen (Fowler 80), Heskey (Murphy 35). Subs: Arphexad, Heggem, Meijer, Kippe.

REFEREE: N Volquartz (Denmark).

ATT: 12,000.

© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

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