Liverpool survive the battle
Kevin McCarra at Celtic Park
El Hadji Diouf's spit late in this Uefa Cup quarter-final leaves a stain on Liverpool's reputation, but his team-mates still deserve to remember this night with modest pride. The Anfield club's history contains numberless achievements of greater magnitude, but in a low-profile season a draw in Glasgow looms large, particularly with its intimations of superiority over the Scottish champions.
Even if the tie is not over, Liverpool will believe that a more advanced technique will be decisive if they maintain these standards. The sole misgiving concerns the conservative nature of a build-up that establishes command but is too studied to create many openings.
Gérard Houllier's side count on sober virtues and their character was all the more impressive because they had to recover poise after a nerve-ridden opening that found them a goal down in the third minute. The encouragement proved false for Celtic, who were a pace short of the action while Liverpool were whisking passes around the midfield.
Their form dipped when they wanted to rise to the challenge and Martin O'Neill's team now need the same dramatic improvement that saw them go to Ewood Park and dominate the second leg of the tie with Blackburn Rovers.
This contest, despite its interest, also had shortcomings, but it did possess a certain charm. Matches lead stubborn lives of their own and managers often feel like the par ents of insubordinate children. With all predictions pointing towards a cramped contest, the game began with so little inhibition that Celtic had taken the lead and lost it within 17 minutes.
Perhaps that was just the overspill from the heaving passions aroused when two such clubs clash. Rules are shelved on these occasions and Henrik Larsson was back ahead of the conventional medical timetable less than five weeks after breaking his jaw. No matter how his face might be feeling, the forward had mouths opening wide in riotous exclamation when he scored for Celtic in the third minute, but this is too substantial a tie to be swayed decisively as early as that.
Although Liverpool had started as if their ears were ringing and their minds reeling from the sonic shock of this venue, it was not long before they found their own measured voice. There was no common ground in the strategies adopted. Celtic hoped to surprise Houllier's side with audacity, braving the risks from the Anfield side's renowned counter-attacking.
Martin O'Neill listed his captain Paul Lambert among the substitutes and employed an attacking trident, with Chris Sutton working in close support of John Hartson and Larsson. Even more unpredictably, there was the gamble of picking the inexperienced Jamie Smith on the right flank, but he began to settle down only after the interval.
There was an initial impression that Celtic, seething with ambition, would sear Liverpool. Within 20 seconds of the kick-off, Hartson had turned on to a Sutton knock-down and clipped the top of the bar with a drive.
When Hartson's clumsy first touch narrowed his shooting angle on the right soon afterwards, he sent the ball screeching across the target and Alan Thompson returned it for Larsson to bundle a goal home from close range. That breakthrough, however, proved to be an advantage that merely consoled Celtic in the remainder of the first half as Liverpool manipulated the ball with much more expertise.
O'Neill's side looked outnumbered as Houllier's men found a rhythm. The equaliser was subtly worked, even if it began with Smith's misjudgment. As he lunged and failed to intercept, John Arne Riise cut inside, embarked on a run and played a clever reverse pass into the left of the penalty area. The angle was trying, but Emile Heskey's finish was meticulously directed just inside the far post.
Soon afterwards, the injured Thompson had to be replaced by the veteran Steve Guppy. In their own arena, the Scottish champions had to retreat and regroup.
Slowly Celtic found the confidence to harass the Liverpool back four and it might only have been the rustiness caused by Larsson's lay-off that prevented him from pouncing once again in the 53rd minute. When Hartson, during a counter-attack, released the Swede, his control was awry and, marginally out of position, he could not force a shot beyond the advancing Jerzy Dudek.
Like him, Liverpool are a barrier that may be insurmountable for Celtic.
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