Owen again brings Anfield relief
Dominic Fifield at Anfield
Any blood-letting will have to wait. Liverpool, so desperate to purge their recent dismal form, were left gnashing in familiar frustration last night to stutter rather than stride into the fourth round.
For all the inevitable public shows of satisfaction, progress in such disjointed fashion will offer scant consolation to Gérard Houllier this morning. His side seem devoid of confidence, lacking any real rhythm as if constricted by the nightmarish memories of recent set-backs.
There is an underlying sense on Merseyside that Liverpool do not truly belong among the lesser lights of this competition, the intense disappointment of last month's Champions League elimination in Basle still nagging away at the team's fragile confidence. Yet their only win from their previous eight games had come against these mediocre opponents, with worrying profligacy at one end increasingly masking uncharacteristic defensive inadequacies at the other.
That much was obvious from the opening. While Liverpool led by the interval, the nerves - initially clearly jangling - had hardly been allayed. Michael Owen's 19th European goal earned that slender advantage, though Arnhem's busy enterprise rather suffocated the home side's attacking verve.
Indeed, the early impetus was with Vitesse. Tim Cornelisse's pass down the right flank by-passed Djimi Traoré to free Matthew Amoah, whose low centre was gathered amid a clutch of legs by Chris Kirkland on the edge of the six-yard box. Unperturbed, Cornelisse went alone moments later, nut-megging Sami Hyypia and crossing for Bob Peeters, a beanpole forward absent from the first leg with flu, to nod wastefully against the outside of the post.
Those misses hardly warmed the home partisans, shivering in the December chill, though the swathes of empty seats in the Centenary Stand suggested neither the Uefa Cup nor the prospects of watching a struggling Dutch club put to the sword were particularly appealing. At least the home side belatedly stirred, Vladimir Smicer's slipped pass gathered cleverly by Danny Murphy who had his shot choked by the advancing Dragoslav Jevric.
The Yugoslav had been outstanding at the Gelredome a fortnight earlier, beaten only once by Owen midway through the first half. This, then, was deja vu: a rare slick passing exchange between Steve Gerrard, Murphy, El Hadji Diouf and Jamie Carragher returning possession to Murphy who spun a delicious first-time pass on to which Owen charged. The striker's initial shot rebounded from the prone Jevric's midrift, though he recovered his poise to slide in the rebound.
Sensing that they had little to lose, Arnhem - in such dire straits these days that they could only field six of the seven substitutes permitted - threw caution to what sporadic wind they could generate.
Amoah forced Kirkland to catch a long-range shot which swirled disconcertingly before settling in the goalkeeper's palms, then curled a free-kick which the 21-year-old England prospect treated with rather more disdain. Peeters's effort from 18 yards posed more of a threat, but Kirkland palmed that away and Riga Mustapha comically air-kicked in the confusion that followed.
In truth, the visitors' desperate ambition had come too late to offer anything other than a stab at pride and, as Dutch legs tired, it was Liverpool who inevitably found menace on the break, even if they still lacked the sparkle or rhythm expected of them.
Too often the bite of the approach play was blunted by the final pass, a depressing trend typified when Diouf's simple pass sent Murphy scuttling away without a marker in sight. The midfielder, in space with time to slide in his cross to the pleading Owen, dithered and Vitesse were duly reprieved.
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