Liverpool crash out of Europe

If there are two aspects of Liverpool's game that tend to be reliable: the finishing of Michael Owen and the steadiness of their back line. Last night, on an evening of extraordinary drama, both deserted them when they were most required.

In 90 topsy-turvy minutes Liverpool conceded more goals than in all their previous Champions League away games combined, the decisive one six minutes from time. Owen, meanwhile, wasted three chances that could have secured a semi-final spot. Lethal in Munich a few months ago, he found Germany less to his liking this time.

The dream of a place in the last four is over for Gérard Houllier's players. At the end Steven Gerrard stood disbelievingly, head in hands. Yards away Bayer Leverkusen's coach Klaus Toppmöller hugged his unquenchable team with such feeling that he hauled them off the ground.

The final blow had been delivered by the Brazil defender Lucio, not long after Jari Litmanen seemed to have earned Liverpool a place in the last four with a fine individual strike that would have put them through on away goals.

Twice Houllier's side seemed set fair after falling behind to a Michael Ballack strike. When Abel Xavier headed an equaliser just before half-time, few of his team-mates can have imagined Leverkusen getting two more.

Even when the Bundesliga leaders responded to make it 3-1 after Owen had missed two chances on the break, that piece of Litmanen magic looked to have saved Liverpool. Houllier admitted he thought that would be enough. He looked back on his team's efforts with regret and pride.

"On a good day Michael could have had a hat-trick," he said. "The only regret we can have is that we could have been 3-1 up after 20 minutes of the second half. So many times the boy has played an important part in our games and these things happen.

"How can you blame your players after what they have done? I have told them they must not be disappointed because they have had a terrific European campaign. I'm very proud of them. We have played 17 games in Europe and lost twice, once to Barcelona at home and once tonight. Those two teams are in the Champions League semi-final." Houllier will feel deep down that his team should be there instead. This match was theirs for the taking, even if they did not perform well.

Owen's wastefulness, once when Leverkusen were 1-0 ahead and twice at 1-1, stands out. Yet he was not the only culprit. Emile Heskey was let down by a poor touch inside the first minute when he had the opportunity to extent Liverpool's 1-0 lead from the first leg. John Arne Riise also had a first-half sight of goal.

To have scored twice and gone out seemed unthinkable beforehand. Liverpool arrived unbeaten in 15 European away matches going back to 1998-99. Their goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek had conceded one goal in his previous six matches in this competition. They have been masters at soaking up pressure.

Yet they buckled under Leverkusen's second-half onslaught, failing to pick up the players who ran off the ball from deep, struggling to control the movements of Yildiray Basturk between their defence and midfield."Defending is a team thing," said Houllier. "I thought at times we were not protecting the back four enough with our usual basics." After Heskey's early miss when fed by Riise, Ballack gave Leverkusen a 16th-minute lead, cutting inside Steven Gerrard on the edge of the box and beating Dudek with a powerful shot from outside the box.

Owen might have equalised before Xavier did so, heading in a Danny Murphy corner. And the striker's wasted chances early in the second half proved crucial. First he hit the post from Murphy's pass, then he stroked the ball wide.

After the interval Leverkusen poured forward using three strikers and they scored twice in quick succession. After Ballack headed in a right-wing cross, Dimitar Berbatov turned the ball in after St¿phane Henchoz had blocked on the line.

Litmanen looked to have provided the final twist when he shimmied past two defenders and scored with a low shot. But, from Basturk's pass, Lucio sent a shot through Dudek's legs to kill Liverpool off.

Bayer Leverkusen (4-4-2): Butt; Sebescen, Lucio, Nowotny, Placente; Schneider, Basturk, Ballack, Ze Roberto; Kirsten (Neuville, h-t), Brdaric (Zivkovic, 70).

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek; Xavier (Berger, 75), Henchoz, Hyypia, Carragher; Murphy, Gerrard, Hamann (Smicer, 61), Riise; Owen, Heskey (Litmanen, 41).

Ballack 16, 61, Berbatov 68, Lucio 85 | Xavier 41, Litmanen 79

Referee: V Melo Pereira (Portugal)

Copyright - The Guardian

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