By Simon Hart at Anfield
Just seven weeks since their unforgettable comeback in Istanbul, Liverpool FC opened their UEFA Champions League defence with a 3-0 victory against Welsh champions Total Network Solutions FC.
There was a full house at Anfield for the European champions' first outing of the season and they were rewarded by the sight of captain Steven Gerrard scoring a hat-trick which, as expected, puts Liverpool firmly in control of this first qualifying round tie ahead of next Tuesday's second leg.
Change of heart
Gerrard was on the verge of leaving Anfield last week before having a last-minute change of heart and signing a new contract until 2009, and here – as if it were needed – was confirmation of why he is so vital to the Liverpool cause.
It took Gerrard only eight minutes to score Liverpool's first goal of the 2005/06 campaign, the England midfield player stroking a close-range shot past TNS goalkeeper Gerard Doherty after being teed up by Fernando Morientes.
After both he and Morientes were denied by Doherty's double-save on the quarter-hour, Gerrard added his second on 21 minutes. The Liverpool captain nicked the ball from Steve Evans some 30 metres from goal and advanced to the edge of the box before lifting the ball over Doherty and into the net.
Mid-July is more of a time for cricket in England and at this stage it seemed a cricket score was in the offing. Not surprisingly either. Even the TNS manager, Ken McKenna, had described the tie as "more than David and Goliath" and here was a team from the Welsh village of Llansantffraid – population 1,200 – whose average crowd is 333, taking on the champions of Europe.
Liverpool kept creating chances. Doherty kept out a flying header from Anthony Le Tallec on the half-hour and then saved at the feet of Morientes. In the dying seconds of the first period he turned a Steve Finnan shot round the post.
Liverpool failed to maintain the same pace after the break and TNS enjoyed more of the ball, albeit without troubling Liverpool's new Spanish goalkeeper José Manuel Reina. Bought from Villarreal CF to replace Jerzy Dudek – who did not even feature on the bench – he made just one save of note in the entire match, and even then Michael Wilde's half-volley in the first half flew straight at him.
Anfield had its first sight of another summer signing Boudewijn Zenden as a second-half substitute but it was a more familiar face who had the final word as Gerrard completed his treble in the last minute with a left-footed drive from the edge of the box.
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