|Tuesday 10th August 2004
Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium, Austria
GRAZ AK 0-2 LIVERPOOL
|Benitez competitive matches record: Played 1 Won 1|
|MATCH REPORT - Graz AK 0-2 Liverpool|
Steven Gerrard said no to the Chelsea millions and was around in Austria to bag the two vital goals that send Liverpool to within touching distance of the Champions League gravy train.
They out-played the Austrian double winners, and Gerrard was only denied a hat-trick by a linesman's flag against a colleague.
And watching all this from the bench, and not getting cup-tied with transfer fever all around, was Liverpool's goal king as he contemplated grabbing the money and running - unlike his pal Gerrard.
The tie was a triumph for new coach Rafael Benitez who had to contend with all the Owen problems that overshadowed the whole build-up to a game Liverpool dare not lose.
Now they are a second leg away from what will be vital funds for Liverpool's future. Whether Owen is around in a fortnight to see the expected successful conclusion at Anfield to this tie is anyone's guess.
He was controversially left on the bench with his future at Liverpool still in doubt as Benitez embarked on a crucial Champions League qualifier.
It was an awful dilemma for the new Spanish coach. Play him and see Owen's transfer market valuation plunge if he was cup-tied, or try to get through a game that decided the club's future in terms of finances and status without him. A £13million gamble.
Benitez gave £2million new boy Josemi his debut at right-back, with Milan Baros partnering another new signing - Djibril Cisse - up front in place of Owen.
The speculation over Owen, the sale of Danny Murphy and the loss of a dozen players this summer from Liverpool's squad had given Benitez a crisis in his very first game as manager with qualification for the next stage absolutely vital.
But the new coach was urging and instructing from the edge of his technical area from the first seconds, and Liverpool pressed forward with confidence and possession.
It was a position they occupied for much of a first period that they dominated and should have scored more than Gerrard's gem.
The chances flowed. Steve Finnan curled a free-kick into the box and Sami Hyypia rose highest to send a towering header goalwards that Andreas Schranz spectacularly tipped over the bar.
Liverpool should have taken the lead when a fine piece of inter-play ended with Gerrard's instant through ball that sent Baros clear.
Defenders were closing but the Czech hitman - who made a habit of taking such chances in Euro 2004 - this time saw his low shot saved by Schranz's legs.
The Austrians flattered occasionally, seeking to get danger man striker Roland Kollmann into the action. But after a spell in which Liverpool were bothered by diving and plentiful free-kicks, they regained their grip.
But not until there was another echo of Portugal when a poor back pass from Gerrard almost let in Kollmann, who was ushered far enough to his left for the final shot to slice wide of the post.
But on 23 minutes Liverpool did take the lead with a sensational goal from Gerrard. Harry Kewell had worked a position out on the left and laid the ball back across the area into the captain's stride some 30 yards out.
Gerrard hit the ball perfectly, and it crashed high into the top corner with Schranz beaten.
Four minutes later it could have been two. Finnan's ball put Baros into a dangerous position on the right, he spun away from his marker and drilled a low ball to the far post where Cisse was fractionally late arriving.
Dietmar Hamann twice, Baros and Cisse could have added further goals to Gerrard's cracker before the break.
The pattern continued in the second period, Liverpool spinning the ball around with growing confidence while Graz had barely had a shot to test Jerzy Dudek. But another goal was vital or they could live to regret wastefulness in front of goal.
Cisse spurned a good opening when he ran clear to drive a low shot into the diving body of Schranz.
That danger was clear when Kollmann rose to send a left wing cross looping over.
Baros, from another good Finnan corner, forced Schranz into a flying save as Liverpool continued to drive home their obvious advantage.
Gerrard's far post header from Jamie Carragher's long ball fitted into the constant pattern of missed chances.
They thought they had got a second from another cracker from Gerrard from outside the box.
But French referee Alain Sars penalised Cisse in the build-up as he tried a bicycle kick that missed ball and man, but it seemed that the decision was actually for offside rather than dangerous play.
What was clear was that Cisse and Baros, for all their pace, were not clicking and the final ball into the Frenchman was not accurate enough.
And Baros was withdrawn to send on another midfielder, Salif Diao, after 72 minutes.
The Austrians had already sent on Mario Bazina and Gernot Sick to try to liven things up.
Finally Liverpool did get their second on 80 minutes. Gerrard broke swiftly from defence and this time the ball for Cisse was perfect as he surged away down the left
He cut in and pushed a pass to Kewell who spun to find Gerrard now unmarked on the right having run fully 80 yards to reach a position to drill a low shot into the bottom corner
Liebherr GAK: Schranz, Tokic, Ehmann, Ramusch, Standfest, Muratovic, Skoro, Amerhauser, Pogatetz, Aufhauser, Kollmann.
Liverpool: Dudek, Finnan (Potter), Hyypia, Carragher, Riise, Kewell, Gerrard (Warnock), Hamann, Josemi, Cisse, Baros (Diao).
Ref: Alain Sars (France)
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|Match Report filed: 10th August 2004|