Gerrard raises roof at Anfield

Liverpool 3 Olypiakos 1

Skipper Gerrard had made it pretty clear before the game that playing in Europe’s elite competition was all he was interested in with his whole future on Merseyside clearly in doubt.

Lose and Gerrard would have been looking for the exit door, so the theory went. And at half-time with a Rivaldo free-kick having put Olympiakos ahead, it looked all over for Rafael Benitez’s men.

They needed an unlikely three second half goals to put them in the next phase, but driven on by Gerrard that is exactly what they achieved.

Young substitutes Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Neil Mellor put Liverpool level as they laid siege to the Greek goal, and with just three minutes of normal time left, Gerrard arrived on cue to blast home a stunning 20-yard shot to make the dream a reality.

Milan Baros returned up front from the start and Benitez included Antonio Nunez for his first European match in Liverpool colours. The home side launched the predictable early assault on a Greek side who had previously never scored in a European match on English soil, or won an away Champions League match.

The omens were good, but things started to go wrong for Liverpool as early as the third minute when Baros seemed to have been awarded a goal for a close-range header, but Spanish referee Manuel Gonzalez was actually giving a free-kick for a foul by the Czech while the Liverpool players were celebrating.

The pressure continued but Rivaldo was starting to appear in far too much space and he saw an effort clear the bar before watching another flick off Gerrard to clear the bar. The warning signs were already there.

Liverpool’s bad luck continued when Xabi Alonso’s curling free-kick from the left was flicked goalwards by Gerrard and the ball bounced off the foot of a post before being hacked clear.

You could have guessed what was coming, with Liverpool suffering the sucker punch they feared on 26 minutes.

Rivaldo picked up possession off Alonso near halfway on 26 minutes and set off on a superb run, even if he did look to hand off the Spanish midfielder on the way.

Sami Hyypia had to bring the Brazilian down and Liverpool were punished when Rivaldo curled the 20-yard free-kick past Chris Kirkland, the shot looking like it had gone through a gap in the wall. Suddenly Liverpool had to score three to progress.

Two minutes later a still angry Alonso fouled Rivaldo and was booked, Liverpool clearly stunned by the turn of events.

The rest of the half saw Liverpool become more nervous in the face of Rivaldo’s ability to win free kicks around the edge of their box.

Without the defensive shield of the suspended Dietmar Hamann, Liverpool’s defence looked vulnerable.

With Gerrard and Alonso trying to push forward, the Greeks found plenty of space to exploit in front of Liverpool’s back line, just to add to the tension.

Rivaldo by now was enraging the home players and fans by his ability to hit the deck at every opportunity.

Jamie Carragher was booked for one foul on the Brazilian who was virtually running the show with his clever, street-wise play.

At the break Liverpool threw on another forward in Pongolle, with Djimi Traore going off and Jon Arne Riise reverting to full-back.

And the move worked within two minutes of the restart when Kewell battled his way to the byline and found Pongolle in the six yard box with his low cross. The French teenager stabbed home the equaliser.

The game threatened to get out of hand after a fierce challenge by Gerrard on Tassos Pantos upset the Greeks, and then when Giovanni tried to kick the Liverpool captain, Gerrard followed through into Ieroklis Stoltidis and was booked.

Then Gerrard thought he had scored when a hook from the edge of the box squirmed through the hands of Antonios Nikopolidis and rolled into the net. But in the build-up Gabriel Schurrer had gone down in a challenge with Baros, and the Spanish referee upset the Kop even more by taking play back and awarding the Greeks a free-kick.

With 12 minutes left, Liverpool replaced the tiring Baros with Mellor, the last throw of the dice for Benitez.

And the Mellor gamble worked with 10 minutes to go when he smashed the ball home from close range after Nikopolidis had palmed away a Nunez header from Pongolle’s cross.

Suddenly hope was restored as Liverpool went in search of the goal that would send them through.

And with three minutes left Mellor’s nod down gave Gerrard the chance to send Anfield wild with a blistering 20-yard effort that at last gave Liverpool their two-goal margin.

LIVERPOOL: Kirkland, Finnan (Josemi 85), Carragher, Hyypia, Traore (Sinama Pongolle 45), Nunez, Alonso, Gerrard, Riise, Kewell, Baros (Mellor 78).

OLYMPIAKOS: Nikopolidis, Pantos, Anatolakis, Schurrer, Venetidis (Maric 84), Georgiadis (Rezic 70), Kafes, Stoltidis, Djordjevic, Rivaldo, Giovanni (Okkas 87).

Referee: Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez (Spain).

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