By Simon Hart at Anfield
Liverpool FC seized the advantage in their UEFA Champions League first knockout round tie against Bayer 04 Leverkusen after a 3-1 triumph achieved without their captain and talisman, the suspended Steven Gerrard.
First-half goals from Luis García and John Arne Riise and an injury-time free-kick from Dietmar Hamann secured a victory which would have been even more conclusive had substitute França not pulled back a goal for the visitors with virtually the game's last kick.
If there were fears about how Liverpool would cope without Gerrard and the cup-tied Fernando Morientes, they were eased in a bright opening period. Only Bernd Schneider's intervention stopped Milan Baroš's early cross reaching Riise as Liverpool set about a Leverkusen defence missing injured skipper Jens Nowotny and featuring Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker on his first Champions League start.
Gradually, though, Leverkusen began to hint at the form that brought them four wins from their previous five matches. On eleven minutes, the visitors produced their first attack of note, Paul Freier showing excellent footwork on a surface made slick by the sleet which fell beforehand, evading a couple of challenges out on the right and cutting the ball back to Robson Ponté, but the Brazilian's shot flew over the crossbar.
Dimitar Berbatov let fly from 20 metres two minutes later and was only denied by Jerzy Dudek's save. Yet it was Liverpool who went ahead on the quarter-hour with a goal made by Igor Bišcan, the man brought into take Gerrard's place alongside Hamann in midfield. The Croatian evaded challenges by Freier and Carsten Ramelow before threading a pass through the Leverkusen backline to the on-rushing Luis García, who took no time in dispatching the ball past Jörg Butt.
Liverpool conceded only three goals in the group stage but rode their luck at times here. Berbatov flashed one low shot just wide of goal and then, on 29 minutes, looked a certain scorer when, after a mix-up between Sami Hyypiä and Steve Finnan, he latched on to the latter's back-header but with just Dudek to beat, rolled the ball wide.
Ponté then shot low at Dudek and Leverkusen soon had reason to regret those misses as Riise doubled Liverpool's lead in the 35th minute. The Norwegian curled a free-kick from the right-hand edge of the penalty box through the Leverkusen wall and inside Butt's near post for his seventh goal of the season.
The half ended with Ponté's unsporting behaviour earning him a yellow card to rule him out of the second leg, and Freier will join him in the stands at the BayArena in a fortnight's time after collecting his third caution of the campaign for a foul on Djimi Traore early in the second half.
Riise was involved again in creating an excellent opening for Baroš nine minutes into the second half. Baroš fed him down the right and he left marker Schneider for dead before returning the ball to the Czech, who placed a shot over the crossbar from ten metres. Shortly before the hour, Andriy Voronin shot over after Berbatov had slipped the ball through to him in the box.
Liverpool's third goal finally arrived in injury time as Hamann curled a sweet free-kick past Butt but barely had the Kop stopped celebrating when Dudek blocked a Berbatov shot and França pounced to restore Leverkusen's hopes. The Germans overturned a 1-0 first-leg defeat when they beat Liverpool in the 2001/02 quarter-finals so they will go into the return on 9 March with hope in their hearts.