Liverpool earn narrow success in crucial first leg for Houllier

"Ten games away from greatness," said Gérard Houllier of Liverpool in the build-up to last night. What he did not say was 10 great games away from greatness.

After the unexpected vigour and boldness of Houllier's words on Tuesday, Liverpool last night returned to what they have been accused of quite a lot this season: pragmatism. Houllier had mentioned the impressive nature of Liverpool's "efficiency" and it was a quality they demonstrated above all others against a Bayer Leverkusen teamevery bit as functional.

Thrilling it may not have been, particularly after the previous European night here against Roma, but Liverpool won and for the 11th time in the past 14 matches they kept a clean sheet.

Sami Hyypia deserves as much credit for that as scoring the 44th-minute goal that perfectly sets up the return leg. It may also tee up a "Battle of Britain" with Manchester United, though that will be more like Amen Corner.

United would probably be favourites, though this Liverpool have also been over some courses before, and recently. Hyypia led from front and back as Liverpool secured three trophies last season and, of increasing significance, they did not lose away in Europe then. In fact, they have not lost away in Europe for four years, since Celta Vigo turned them over in Galicia at the beginning of Houllier's reign.

Houllier emphasised the positive afterwards and touched upon that record but he knows that Liverpool will have to be as compact and competent as Leverkusen were here. "They are a good side," he said. "They showed why they won their group ahead of Juventus, Arsenal and Deportivo.

"At times they made us look ordinary in the first half. Maybe we showed a bit of tension in our passing but it's a very good result. I believe the first leg is always the most important because it leaves three scenarios: you put yourself in a good position to qualify; you secure your chance to qualify; or you ruin your chance to qualify. I think we are in a good position to qualify." His opposite number Klaus Toppmöller said the same about his team.

Houllier said of his match-winner Hyypia: "He is the first foreign captain to lift a trophy for us. He knows that; we have a kind of shared vision."

Part of it is the memory of that recent prosperous past. Hyypia is a reflective individual off the pitch and of late said something that predated Houllier's 10 games from greatness oration. "One thing we have to remember from last season," said Hyypia, "is that I think we had 10 games left and we needed to win every game. And we won, except one, so the positive thing we have to remember is that we could do it then, why can't we do it now

What happened then is in the past and you can't live in the past, but that's what I would remember."

Liverpool have made a start. Now there is a five-day stop - Sunday's scheduled game with Blackburn Rovers having been booted into May - and then the second leg.

It is not as important as the first, Houllier would have one believe, but one can bet that the "meticulous planning" he spoke of will include an analysis of Bernd Schneider, the midfield schemer who did most to upset Liverpool's rhythm and get Leverkusen going.

It will also have to feature Jens Nowotny, the Germans' best defender, who was suspended last night. Travelling Liverpool fans will definitely have to accord Nowotny, Schneider and co more recognition than here; Leverkusen had almost become a subplot by kick-off.

The result from La Coruna 24 hours earlier had led to premature discussions about the Battle of Britain but, once Schneider had shown that he was doing to Liverpool what Vladimir Smicer had done to Roma a fortnight ago, the agenda changed markedly.

Hyypia's goal and a rousing 15-minute period in the second half may have fooled some into believing that it had changed back but on a night when Liverpool were "not as creative as they can be", according to Toppmöller, a defining moment came in the 90th minute when one of Liverpool's architects, Steven Gerrard, stooped to deconstruct another Leverkusen attack.

That ensured Liverpool had another clean sheet and another victory. It leaves nine games to greatness, though maybe not nine great games.

Copyright - The Guardian

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