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A disappointing performance, yet does the job

Preview and match report by Robbie Amins at talklfc

With a two-goal advantage from the first leg in the Arnold Scwarzenegger Stadium, Liverpool take on Austrian League and Cup double champions Grazer AK again tonight. A place in the lucrative group stages of the competition is certainly within the grasp of the once mighty Merseysiders - and this is one more step along the road to Benitez's rebirth of the club.

A succesful arrival in the group stages and the instant £12M boost to the club's coffers could allow Rafa Benitez to indulge himself in the transfer market again before the window shuts next week. The game could be the last for some of the old order before the Spanish duo of Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia are able to play for their new employers.

Benitez' signings will surely go straight into the side at the Reebok against Bolton in the Premiership on Sunday, but must sit and watch the men whose shirts they have come to take fight for their futures in Europe.

The Reds need not look any further than the likes of Inter and Juventus. Complacency almost cost them dearly. The Italian giants almost lost their first matches of the qualifiers to so-called weaker teams, Basel and Djurgardens.

Defender Sami Hyypia stressed the importance of getting the job done.

Hyypia said, "We will approach this match like any other game as though it's 0-0. We want to win and it's a big game for us."

"We are 2-0 up but we will not be taking anything for granted. We must not allow ourselves to be complacent."

"We want to qualify for the Champions League group stages to put this club where it belongs. A club like Liverpool belongs in the Champions League."

Under the previous regime, Liverpool would certainly field their best team in a match of this magnitude even if the Reds were two goals up from the first leg. But Rafa Benitez has no qualms about starting with some of the fringe players and letting them show the gaffer what they can offer to him - and the team.

He said, "This game is important for us, for the supporters and the club. We know good teams are waiting for us and there is always the money - the players must concentrate on getting this right."

"It is important the players understand we cannot have a bad result. Sometimes you give the players the opportunity to show people if they are good enough for the team and you will see two or three different players in this game."

"It is important for them and I am sure they will fight and run enough because they know the supporters and the manager are watching them."

Josemi and Chris Kirkland are doubtful for the match with their back problems while Antonio Nunez still has about three weeks before he can start to kick a ball. Youngster Paul Harrison is expected to take Kirkland's place on the bench.

Grazer AK have got injury problems of their own as well. The skipper of the side Tonuses Ehmann is out after undergoing surgery to rectify a nasal injury. Last season's Austrian Bundesliga topscorer Roland Kollman is also doubtful.

In the first leg of the tie, promising midfielder Darren Potter replaced Steve Finnan near the end of the game. He will be one of those hoping for more than just 5 minutes this time round. Stephen Warnock is expected to start for the first time tonight.

Hyypia hit the nail on the head when he said: "It was painful watching the Champions League matches at home last season and we were not in it. We hope to make up for that this year."

"Three years ago this club was in the quarter-finals of the Champions League and I do not see any reason why we can't do that again, at least."

The fans of Liverpool Football Club share the same sentiments.
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Match Report

After the match, Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher said, "It was a disappointing performance."

Indeed it was. The fans expected better from the Reds but most of them agreed that the priority was to qualify for the Champions League and not the result.

Liverpool enjoyed the lion's share of possession but were unable to breakdown a stubborn Grazer rearguard with the hosts' most threatening attacking weapon being the pace of strike duo Djibril Cisse and Milan Baros.

Benitez had given 19-year-old scouser Darren Potter his full debut. And in the starting line-up, Stephane Henchoz was recalled for the injured Josemi, while Diao replaced Hamann in midfield. But it would be wrong to assume that this was a weakened Liverpool side. It was merely a weak performance from too many of the Reds’ perceived heavyweights who looked nervous and did not pass the ball well enough.

Steven Gerrard went the closest to giving Liverpool a three goal cushion. The skipper, who netted both goals in Austria, was left all alone on the edge of the box at a free-kick but his placed shot went just wide of the post.

Chris Kirkland has got to come back as soon as possible as Jerzy Dudek is a cause for concern at the moment. Dudek twice failed to deal with floated free-kicks and was lucky to see no Grazer player capitalise on his mistakes.

There was no greater certainty about the Liverpool side that emerged for the second half. They struggled to maintain possession and within nine minutes conceded a goal. Sami Hyypia headed a corner clear to Mario Tokic on the edge of the area who took one touch and then thrashed the ball past Dudek.

All of a sudden, the air of complacency at Anfield was replaced by a nervous atmosphere amongst the majority of the full house as the prospect of another campaign in the Uefa Cup loomed.

The defensive frailties that Benitez has spoken at length about since he took the job will not be repaired immediately but last night they appeared to jeopardise the club's entire season. The Liverpool coach's response was to replace the disappointing Harry Kewell, who disappeared straight down the tunnel, with Stephen Warnock.

Liverpool reacted to the Graz goal by attacking with more purpose. Steven Gerrard as always, at the hub of their best attacking moves but it was to no avail. To his disbelief, Stevie G was booked for diving after yet another surging run into the box.

Warnock cut the ball across goal just after the hour and Baros's lunge was fractionally too late. The Czech striker then cut back the ball to Cisse whose snap shot flew over.

Liverpool were shorn of a cutting edge, and it was only via long-range strikes from first Gerrard and then Diao that the home side threatened an equaliser.

At the other end, only a sharp save for Dudek low at his near post ensured Liverpool’s passage through.

Spanish referee Luis Medina Cantalejo's career at this level could be over after he failed to send off Graz AK's captain, Rene Aufhauser, despite giving him two yellow cards.

The midfielder was booked for a foul on Steven Gerrard with 15 minutes of the second half remaining, having been cautioned only ten minutes earlier for a similar offence.Bizarrely, the referee ignored the prompting of his fourth official and did not show the player a red card.

Rafael Benitez's first defeat in charge of Liverpool and his first at Anfield. But it was a good lesson for the Reds. Thank goodness it wasn't an expensive one.

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