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Owen hat-trick sinks Haka

Liverpool took a giant step towards the group stages of the Champions League with a comfortable away victory against FC Haka.

Michael Owen stole the show for Gerrard Houllier's side, blasting a second-half hat-trick to ensure the second leg at Anfield in a fortnight's time is a formality.

In honestly, the first leg was something of a formality too.

Haka, coached by Geordie Keith Armstrong, attempted to frustrate the visitors with a well-rehearsed offside trap and, for a while, the tactic worked.

But the deadlock was broken - and the floodgates opened - by Emile Heskey's close range header on 31 minutes.

Steve Gerrard exposed an alarming gap in Haka's left-back position and delivered a precise cross from which Heskey crashed a diving header beyond the reach of Andras Vilnrotter.

FC Haka were only awarded this third qualifying round tie after Israeli outfit Maccabi Haifa were kicked out of the competition for fielding an ineligible player last week.

The gulf in class between the Finns and last season's Uefa Cup winners told, but the home side's fans were clearly intent on enjoying their night, no matter what the final result was.

Liverpool and Finland captain Sami Hyypia was cheered throughout by both sets of fans, as was Jari Litmanen, who excelled in a deep lying forward role just behind Heskey and Owen.

Liverpool clearly relished the secnario in Finland's national stadium more than the prospect of a trip to the hostile home of Haifa and in the second half they really made themselves at home.

Litmanen provided the pass for Owen to extend the lead on 56 minutes, though Gerrard started the move with a fine tackle on former Manchester United youngster David Wilson.

Gerrard played Litmanen in and his pass sent Owen scampering clear.

After a string of first-half misses, Owen made no mistake this time, beating Vilnrotter with a low shot.

Litmanen's assist was his last involvement in the game and he was duly substituted to a hero's reception.

But Liverpool were only just starting.

Owen grabbed his second when he rounded Vilnrotter and slotted into an empty net after Patrick Berger's clever chip over the home side's defence.

But the biggest cheer of the night was for Hyypia, who swept home from eight yards after Owen had mis-kicked with a hat-trick beckoning.

Owen's moment arrived a minute later though, the striker completing his hat-trick with a low drive from Berger's pass as a weary Haka defence merely looked on in admiration.

Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier paid tribute to Michael Owen's "tremendous" performance as the Reds virtually ensured their place in the Champions League group stages.

Owen blasted a hat-trick in Liverpool's 5-0 win over FC Haka in the third qualifying round, ensuring the second leg at Anfield will be a virtual stroll into the lucrative group stages.

Houllier said: "Michael's three goals were tremendous, and it was a tremendous performance.

"Whatever the opposition, to score three times away from home in Europe is outstanding.

"Michael has started so well in the friendlies and now he has started the real season with a few more goals - but even if he should have had more."

Despite the comprehensive win over the tiny Finnish outfit, Houllier insists the job is not yet done.

He said: "After a game like this you normally say that half the job is done, but this time I can say we have completed two thirds of the job, nothing more.

"Haka lifted their game, they were the underdogs and they gave us a tough match until they tired towards the end.

"But what I was happiest with was the application and professionalism of our side. It was a very professional performance.

"We kept going, we were scoring goals right to the end and we never eased off or relaxed."

Copyright - BBC

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