Thursday 26th February 2004 (8pm)
Anfield, Liverpool

Gerard led from the front.

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MATCH REPORT - Liverpool 2-0 Levski Sofia

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Gerrard 67
Kewell 70

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Liverpool regained their pride with what was eventually a convincing UEFA Cup third round first leg victory on a night which began with the future of manager Gerard Houllier under the spotlight.

But after Levski had presented a formidable first half barrier, Liverpool claimed a decent leg lead with goals from Steven Gerrard and Harry Kewell.

And a warm moment came in the freezing temperatures came when near the end when the Kop sang Houllier's name, showing they at least had sympathy for the Frenchman's plight.

And it was not only Houllier who was tense - a similar atmosphere hung over Anfield as the Mersey public contemplated their own side's failings and a neat, well organised, but deeply defensive Levski.

The Bulgarians only committed Georgi Ivanov, their top scorer, forward, opting to man mark Steven Gerrard with Asen Bukarev.

Liverpool were expected to take the initative, and in the current climate that was asking an awful lot.

The pace was coming from Baros, who on four minutes got away on the right, cut inside and fed Murphy, but the chances was charged down.

Then Konstantin Golovskoy was booked for clattering Baros as he struggled to find space to run at the defence.

On 15 minutes, Baros rose at the far post to send a Murphy corner just wide. Liverpool slowly getting into some sort of stride.

But Levski were too good to just defend, and when they broke on 19 minutes, Golovskoy saw a 20-yard effort deflected inches wide with Chris Kirkland floundering.

Levski were happy to invite Liverpool onto their back line, hoping for the quick break from defence - and in Kostadin Vidolov and Nigerian Omomigho Temile they had the players capable of taking advantage.

After Liverpool's tentative opening, the Bulgarians achieved more possession and produced quick inter-passing which forced Liverpool back.

Liverpool needed Baros and Kewell to retain the ball more, and the latter did get in on the left to fire over a cross which deflected wildly off Elin Topuzakov, forcing goalkeeper Dimitar Ivankov into a leaping save he was hardly expecting.

Increasingly, Vidolov was pulling the midfield strings and showing clever control in tight situations, while his colleagues were on to Liverpool men in possession in no time, giving nobody a second for creative thought.

A Liverpool corner from the left from Gerrard curled in and was missed by Michael Owen, Dietmar Hamann and Baros.

But chances by now had become a premium. One, when Kewell arched in a cross, saw Owen rise to head wide of the far post.

Levski were even less ambitious in the second period, with 10 men in their own half right from the start.

But on 49 minutes, Liverpool's best chance so far was spurned by Owen. Murphy's high ball into the box was met by Owen's speedy run into space but his header was not powerful enough and gave Ivankov the chance to push it away at full stretch.

A minute later Hamann was next to supply Owen, clear again, but with Ivankov flying from his line the striker could only lift his shot wide of the post.

The next break saw Gerrard send Owen in on the left, this time a much harder chance from the angle of the box, but the shot was mishit and curled away to safety.

Vidolov had a 25-yard effort saved by Kirkland before Owen was again given an opening, this time snatching at a low shot, before Georgi Markov was booked for a foul on Baros.

Owen clearly had decided to shoot on sight, and did just that from 30 yards, but again Ivankov saved to his left.

Daniel Borimirov was the next player to be booked for fouling Baros, in the 63rd minute with the Czech in full flow.

The deadlock was finally broken on 67 minutes by driving force Gerrard.

Murphy's corner was played short to Kewell and then Steve Finnan and when the cross was nodded out by Bukarev, Gerrard drilled the dropping ball into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.

And it got better for Liverpool three minutes later when another Murphy corner, played to Kewell again, saw the Aussie work an angle 35 yards out before lashing a stunning shot into the far top corner of the net.

Levski brought on Georgi Chilikov, Dimitar Telkiyski and Martin Stankov in quick succession, but Liverpool were looking confident and assured by now, and seeking more goals.

Baros went on a twisting run on the left before setting up Kewell, but the shot was charged down.

Then Baros broke again, but instead of feeding Owen, he opted for a 20-yard effort which Ivankov held low to his right.

Diouf got into the action with five minutes left, taking over from Kewell, and the Kop decided to finally sing Houllier's name with the whole stadium applauding as the Frenchman came to the line.

And when they sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" immediately afterwards, it was clearly aimed at the under-pressure Houllier.

Cheyrou took over from Baros with a minute left, and the Czech left to a standing ovation for a game of tireless running.

Press Association

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Liverpool: Kirkland, Finnan, Henchoz, Hyypia, Carragher, Murphy, Gerrard, Hamann, Kewell, Owen, Baros.
Subs: Dudek, Diouf, Le Tallec, Traore, Biscan, Cheyrou, Welsh.

Levski Sofia: Ivankov, Wagner, Markov, Stoyanov, Topuzakov, Temile, Bukarev, Golovskoy, Borimirov, Vidolov, Georgi Ivanov.
Subs: Petkov, Biser Ivanov, Simonovic, Telkiyski, Chilikov, Stankov, Stanislav Angelov.

Referee: Rene Temmink (Holland).

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Match Report filed: 26th February 2004