COMETH the hour, cometh the man and in Liverpool’s hour of need, their manager Gerard Houllier was there to give the pep talk which fired his side to the Champions League quarter-finals.
Houllier had not attended a Liverpool match at Anfield for five months, while he was recuperating after heart surgery, and though the Frenchman looked gaunt his presence lifted the Kop to fever pitch and reinvigorated his players with the sense of purpose which he had instilled in them on route to last season’s UEFA Cup success.
Roma had been one of the teams vanquished on the way to that trophy, albeit with a reversal in the return home leg, but the Merseysiders, needing a 2-0 victory, gave the Italians no encouragement this time.
Phil Thompson, Houllier’s assistant revealed the part his boss played in the Romans’ downfall, which leaves Serie A without a representative in the last eight. “It was a great night – one of the greatest nights in the club’s history. It was also an emotional night for Gerard. We discussed him giving the team talk this afternoon, and he said: “I fancy it. I said ‘the time’s right – let’s do it.’”
Houllier’s return had obviously put a spring in Liverpool’s step and they set upon Roma from the outset, being rewarded with an early penalty from stand-in striker Jari Limanen. It was just the start they needed and a Red tide threatened to swamp the Romans. That the all-important second goal didn’t come until midway through the second half from Emile Heskey didn’t sway the Liverpool crowd’s belief that it would arrive.
With five minutes gone, Vladimir Smicer gave Roma a scare, breaking into space in the middle of the pitch and firing in a curling shot that Francesco Antonioli only kept out at a stretch.
From the ensuing corner, however, Roma were panicked into conceding a penalty, Litmanen scored. Assuncao was the culprit for Roma, the Brazilian clipping Danny Murphy’s heels after a hectic goalmouth scramble.
Liverpool were unfortunate not to have the two-goal lead after Heskey turned Walter Samuel and was fouled by the Argentine 25 yards out.
John Arne Riise rolled the free-kick to Steven Gerrard, who struck a shot of such venom that Antonioli was glad to see it bounce off his chest.
Liverpool’s dominance of the first 20 minutes was all-consuming, and Riise rocketed a shot not far past the top corner. Roma, by contrast, had not tested Jerzy Dudek.
But Roma then began to inject some invention into their play and Emerson sent a through-ball skimming towards Francesco Totti, but Jamie Carragher slid in to make a crucial interception.
Liverpool began to seek out Heskey’s aerial dominance, and his header gave Riise another sight of goal, but the Norwegian fired far too high.
Gabriel Batistuta struck a free-kick into the wall, and Roma began to look increasingly threatening. Their best move of the first half saw Totti free Emerson down the right and he bent over a cross, which seemed destined for the unmarked Batistuta but Stephane Henchoz’s blond head appeared to flick the ball to safety.
At the other end, Carragher crossed to the far post where Heskey won a good header, but his effort was too high.
Roma coach Fabio Capello made a couple of switches at the break, bringing on Vicenzo Montella and Marco Delvecchio, Francisco Lima and Batistuta making way. It was a positive move by the Italians, and they began the half brightly. Totti swung in a curling shot, but Dudek was never troubled.
Samuel, however, was finding Heskey difficult to cope with and fouled him again outside the area, but Riise’s free-kick lacked quality.
Heskey then took on Samuel for pace and left the Argentine standing, and was stopped only by Aldair coming across to concede a corner. Riise took the flag-kick, so nearly finding the head of Gerrard, and the Norwegian then fired into the side-netting when the ball rebounded to him.
Totti came mighty close to equalising when he connected first-time with Assuncao’s low centre. He would probably have scored had the ball not deflected wide off a defender.
Abel Xavier came to the rescue for Liverpool, cutting out Totti’s through-ball, then Delvecchio flicked a header over the bar after connecting with Candela’s cross from the right.
In the 65th minute, Heskey scored the goal Liverpool had always looked like getting. Murphy hit a free-kick from deep on the left and Heskey rose high above his marker to bury a perfect header into the net.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Dudek; Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Xavier; Murphy, Gerrard, Riise; Smicer (McAllister, 89), Litmanen (Biscan, 87), Heskey. Substitutes not used: Baros, Barmby, Diomede, Wright, Arphexad (gk).
Roma (3-5-2): Antonioli; Panucci, Samuel, Aldair; Tommasi, Assuncao (Cassano, 69), Emerson, Lima (Montella, h-t), Candela; Totti, Batistuta (Delvecchio, h-t). Subsitutes not used: Zago, Zebina, Guigou, Pelizzoli (gk).
Referee: R Pedersen (Norway).
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