The all-British UEFA Cup quarter-final first leg ended 1-1 and advantage Liverpool FC who were forced to endure a traumatic start when Celtic FC took a second-minute lead. After that the English team displayed great resolution and after drawing level were scarcely troubled again.
Gamble pays off
Celtic manager Martin O'Neill took a gamble in fielding Henrik Larsson for his first appearance since suffering a double fracture of the jaw. Even he, a manager who regularly pulls the rabbit out of the hat, must have been surprised to see the Swedish striker find the net so soon, his left knee diverting the ball over the line after Alan Thompson had driven it across.
That was not the first piece of serious activity around the Liverpool goal as Celtic stoked up the red-hot atmosphere to near-boiling point. With just 13 seconds on the clock John Hartson had unleashed a volley against Jerzy Dudek's crossbar from a Chris Sutton flick-on.
Liverpool, conceding their first goal in the competition, could easily have been blown over in the rush and left to face an uphill task in next week's return. The way they had defended in those initial moments did not bode well for Gérard Houllier's side. In the run-up to the goal John Arne Riise had misjudged a high ball and then Jamie Carragher failed to deal with the ball that Hartson whipped across.
Liverpool needed a quick response to quell the passion inside the stadium and diminish Celtic's soaring confidence. It came after 16 minutes when Riise made up for his earlier miscalculation with a storming run into Celtic territory. His pass to Emile Heskey, only just back in the side after a hamstring injury, was finely judged and a smart angled drive did the rest. Houllier said: "We wanted to start well, but credit to the players, they kept their composure and didn't lose their shape and chase the game, which is exactly what we wanted."
Liverpool took great comfort from that and with Steven Gerrard exhibiting the energy levels of two in midfield and Djimi Traore demonstrating that he is a solid and reliable central defender the visitors proceeded to take control of the game. It makes them favourites to win through to the semi-finals of a competition they won in 2001. However, Houllier was quick to preach caution as he said: "It is just half-time in the tie. We know we have got 90 minutes, if not more, at Anfield but scoring a goal away from home is important."
O'Neill had put his faith in an attacking lineup with Sutton handed midfield duties just behind Larsson and Hartson. Yet they could not break down Liverpool a second time, coming closest in the 53rd minute when a loose Liverpool pass set Celtic moving. Hartson played Larsson in but Dudek was quick to smother.
Celtic were hampered by the loss before half-time of Thompson with a calf injury. Sutton also looked less than fully mobile as the game wore on and that will be a concern to O'Neill as he now turns his attention to the Scottish League Cup final against great rivals Rangers FC on Sunday.
'We're not out'
O'Neill said: "It looks like we have to go to Anfield and win. But why not? We will certainly go for it, there is no way I want to go out in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup without having given our all. I am really proud of the side. Liverpool are a top-class side and while you can pick little instances here and there overall I was absolutely delighted with the commitment."
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