Toothless Reds make Emile of it

ROBBIE FOWLER may have wetted his new baby's head last night, but it would have been the proud father who was buying the Perrier for Emile Heskey.

While the Liverpool skipper marked the birth of his second child yesterday with a succession of missed first half opportunities and a glaring miss from the penalty spot in the second period, it was his ?11m strike partner who spared everyone's blushes with a late, late winner against the Czech minnows Slovan Liberec.

The Reds now have the first leg cushion essential in Europe, but it was expected to be far more comfortable than this against a side playing only their third ever Continental contest.

Slovan's disappointed manager Ladislav Skorpil said as much afterwards, when he admitted: "A 1-0 result is better than expected.

"We were looking for a result that would make the second leg at home worthwhile."

Worthwhile, indeed.

One-time Czech league leaders Liberec came and did exactly what everyone thought they would do; defend admirably and in numbers.

Hardly a shock, but Liverpool's constant struggle to find a way through was generating plenty of anxious expressions inside Anfield until Heskey pounced from close range in the 86th minute.

In terms of possession Gerard Houllier could not have asked for more from his team.

But at home in the UEFA Cup, where the maxim is score many, concede none, he must have been concerned with what they were doing with it.

Not until the late arrival of Gary McAllister and Nick Barmby did Liverpool seriously trouble the Liberec back line with any regularity, as too often the final ball delivered out of a patient build-up found a visiting defender's head or boot.

The immediate impression, however, disguised the pattern to come.

Liverpool, it seemed, were preparing for Everton's visit on Sunday by operating in typical derby mode; fast, frenetic and instantly on the attack.

One minute had barely elapsed when Fowler climbed highest to direct a header from Patrick Berger's corner towards goal, only for keeper Zbynek Hauzr to save low down.

Instantly the tempo changed, for the worse, even if the personal duel between the Reds striker and the Liberec keeper did not.

Pace gave way to the slow, patient play which dominates European ties such as this and yet still manages to frustrate English crowds and teams.

To their credit, the Liverpool support did not succumb.

Once Liberec's bulky back three had settled, their midfield retreated into its own half - leaving Argentinian striker Lazzaro Luini alone up front - it was clear the painful learning process of Rapid Bucharest in the first leg home tie was unfolding again.

And yet, without Fowler's labour pains, Liverpool could still have found themselves with the healthy first leg advantage they craved by the interval.

The striker's second headed opening of the night was much clearer than his first, but failed to hit the target as Smicer's inviting cross from the right was sent high over the bar.

On the half hour mark a Danny Murphy drive deflected into the striker's path inside the area, but an initial stumble over the ball gave Tomas Janu the vital second he required to bundle the Reds star off the ball and clear to safety.

Two more chances fell Fowler's way before the interval.

Another header found the arms of Hauzr and then a better opening to convert Emile Heskey's by-line cut-back was directed the wrong side of the post.

Liberec's licence to sit deep meant any break they produced was severely lacking in numbers.

It will not be this way in the return, though the Liverpool defence sat easily last night.

The Czech's most potent, indeed only, outlet was from corners, two of which, with better finishing, could have at least troubled Sander Westerveld for the only time in the game.

Fortunately for the Reds when the partially cleared set-pieces fell to unmarked opponents on the edge of the area, they both turned out to be central defenders.

Their shots had predictable results.

After the interval the game remained unchanged; Liverpool all possession, some pressure and little creativity.

In those circumstances, the award of a penalty eight minutes into the second half was just the gift they needed.

Heskey got the faintest of touches on a Smicer corner which directed the ball into Hamann's path.

The German international controlled the ball on his chest, shaped to shoot only to be nudged in the back by Jiri Stajner.

Referee Busacca had no alternative.

Surely the time had now come for Fowler to score his first goal since December.

Well, all things considered, perhaps not.

As his manager suggested afterwards, the player's inevitable rustiness - combined with the frustrations of the opening 45 minutes - indicated he was, on this occasion, not the ideal man for the job.

Fowler's evening was capped as the spot-kick flew high into the Kop.

At least that served to galvanise the home side, or it brought home to them the seriousness of the situation.

Now the shots were raining in, although too often from distance as the Liberec line was rarely breached.

Berger and Hamann went close before Hauzr pulled off an excellent double save, parrying a Murphy drive and then blocked Smicer's follow-up at his near post.

From the resulting corner Markus Babbel, imperious in defence, so nearly made the difference in attack as his looping header landed on top of the crossbar.

Houllier's double substitution in the 68th minute added the missing edge up front, though there was still time for Fowler, Hamann and Berger to shoot off target.

Patience, we were told, would hold the key to this tie and the Reds proved they were not lying by finally getting the possibly decisive goal with just four minutes of normal time remaining.

McAllister's corner was punched at full stretch by Hauzr into Barmby's path.

The England international's shot struck a Liberec defender and looped into the six yard box where a waiting Heskey gratefully drove the ball into the roof of the net.

That's five goals in three games for the big striker now.

But the drinks are still on Robbie Fowler.

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld; Carragher, Babbel, Henchoz, Ziege; Smicer (Barmby, 68 mins), Murphy (McAllister, 68 mins), Hamann, Berger; Heskey, Fowler.

Subs: Song, Hyypia, Arphexad, Camara, Traore.

SLOVAN LIBEREC (5-4-1): Hauzr; Capek, Michalik, Lexa, Kozuch, Stajner (Jun, 71 mins), Liuni (Nezmar, 79 mins), Johana, Janu, Neumann, Pilny.

Subs: Breda, Bakes, Beno, Silny, Barta.

REFEREE: Massimo Busacca (Switzerland).

BOOKINGS: Liverpool's Murphy and Babbel (both fouls), Liberec's Johana (foul).


Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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