Liverpool come back from soccer’s dead

LIVERPOOL (AFP) – Steven Gerrard scored one of the finest – and most dramatic – goals Anfield’s famous Kop has ever witnessed to fire Liverpool into the knockout stages of the Champions League, with a gut-wrenching 3-1 win over Olympiakos here on Wednesday night. Leading 2-1 with barely four minutes left, Liverpool’s chance of securing the two-goal winning margin they needed to climb above their opponents in Group E appeared to have slipped away. But it was resurrected in the most spectacular fashion imaginable when Gerrard squared up to substitute Neil Mellor’s layoff and smashed an unstoppable half-volley from nearly 30 yards. Olympiakos’s goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis did well to see it and move in the right direction. Stopping it was never an option. Gerrard said he had thought at halftime that it was all over at his beloved team, which nevertheless he has threatened to leave if there is no hope of silverware. «At halftime, I thought it was a mountain to climb but we did it. Thank God for that strike at the end. It is the most important goal in my career for Liverpool. I had a lot of pressure on me after all the speculation about my future,» Gerrard said. Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez paid tribute to the jewel in the side’s crown. «He can play all over the pitch. He influences every part of the game. I have said to him many times that he has the freedom because he has talent and is very important to us,» he purred. Benitez’s counterpart Dusan Bajevic fumed at his side’s performance. «The whole game was the worst we have played for a long time. We didn’t create a single chance. Because we scored the first goal, we thought we could hold back but Liverpool were better, faster, and stronger than us and with the pressure we were under, we could not hold out,» was his frank assessment. They left it late but Liverpool – for their guts, if nothing else – fully deserved to treat their fans to one of the most memorable nights in Anfield’s illustrious European history. Stunned by the Rivaldo goal that had given the Greeks a first-half lead and a precious away goal, Benitez’s side got back into the match courtesy of goals from second-half substitutes Florent Sinama Pongolle and Mellor. Liverpool kicked off knowing a 1-0 win would lift them above the Greeks but that conceding one goal could be fatal. There was precious little sign of either caution or patience however as Liverpool started with a bout of sustained pressure that yielded four corners inside the first three minutes. Milan Baros thought he had scored from the second, his effort disallowed for climbing on his marker, while Sami Hyypia sent the fourth into the side netting at the front post. Olympiakos’s vulnerability at set-pieces was underlined again when Harry Kewell was allowed a free header from a Xabi Alonso free kick from the right. The Australian failed to exploit the opportunity, directing his header into a defender’s back rather than toward the target. It was still encouraging enough for the home side and by the time Gerrard deflected a Xabi Alonso free kick onto the post in the 21st minute, the Greeks had yet to mount a meaningful attack. Rivaldo soon changed that, embarking on a run from inside his own half that took him past three ineffective challenges before he was upended by Hyypia’s trip on the edge of the area. As the last man standing between the Brazilian and Liverpool goalkeeper, Hyypia could count himself lucky to escape without any kind of sanction from Spanish referee Manuel Mejuto. Liverpool did not go unpunished however. Rivaldo’s free kick was tamely struck and poorly directed by his standards. But a crack in the Liverpool wall ensured the unsighted Chris Kirkland could do little to prevent it finishing up in the net. Benitez had little option but to reshuffle his pack and the halftime introduction of Sinama Pongolle did not take long to pay off, the youngster hooking in Kewell’s low cross from the left after less than two minutes on the field. That at least got the Anfield crowd going and the home supporters’ hopes were cruelly raised just after the hour mark when a shot from Gerrard slithered under Nikopolidis only to be disallowed because of a foul by Baros on center-back Gabriel Schurrer. There was more agony a quarter of an hour from the end when Kewell sent another free-header, this time from Pongolle, straight into the arms of the Greek goalkeeper. Liverpool’s chance seemed to be slipping away when Pongolle found a yard of space on the left of the goalmouth and flipped in a cross for Antonio Nunez. The Spaniard’s header was blocked but Mellor pounced to smash the loose ball into the net and set the stage for Gerrard’s late heroics.