Liverpool went some way to erasing the disappointment of missing out on the second group stage of the UEFA Champions League by beating SBV Vitesse 1-0 at the Gelredome tonight, but the 2001 UEFA Cup winners were ultimately fortunate to leave Arnhem with a third round first-leg lead after an unconvincing second-half performance.
Michael Owen's 27th-minute strike decided the match, but Liverpool should have been home and dry when Riga Mustapha hit the post seven minutes from time before substitute Kalle Sone shot wide from six metres with the goal at his mercy.
Henchoz and Gerrard return
With Stéphane Henchoz returning with aplomb alongside Sami Hyypiä, and Steven Gerrard back in the side, manager Gérard Houllier was delighted to have collected a clean sheet after recording just one in six Champions League games. But once again Liverpool were far from convincing.
The visiting side started comfortably and went ahead midway through the first half. Vladimír Šmicer, on as a substitute for the injured Bruno Cheyrou, picked out Milan Baroš who threaded a pass through to Owen to beat Dragoslav Jevric at the near post.
Liverpool failed to build on that lead though, although Vitesse offered little to trouble their defence before the break. Riga Mustapha down the right was the main threat for the home side, but it was not until the final minute of the half that he was able to get in behind the Liverpool defence. Evgen Levchenko's cross from the left eluded Djimi Traore at the far post, but Mustapha was unable to find the target with his volley.
Vitesse came out after the break with more confidence while Liverpool were content to sit back and look to strike on the break. Twice in the space of two minutes Jevric saved brilliantly from Owen with the striker through on goal, and the keeper repeated the feat moments later to thwart Šmicer.
Sone shoots wide
That kept Vitesse in the match and they came close to punishing Liverpool late on after a period of sustained pressure. Mustapha's strike from the left cannoned back off the post to Sone, but the young substitute snapped at his shot with Jerzy Dudek beaten. "Liverpool had fantastic chances, but Jevric did a brilliant job and that gave us hope," Vitesse coach Mike Snoel said. "
The most exciting and disappointing moment was Sone's miss. To miss from there is unbelievable."
For Houllier, after a string of disappointing results and the visit of Manchester United FC approaching on Sunday, victory was enough to bring a smile to his face. "
This result will act as a boost for the coming matches," he said. "My defence was out for a clean sheet and they did well. We have conceded too many goals lately so we are very pleased to have kept a clean sheet."