With Mark Wright injured and Bjorne Tore Kvarme ineligible, Steve Harkness made a surprise return to action for Liverpool following an absence of almost a year after breaking a leg against Coventry last Easter. Roy Evans also recalled Neil Ruddock in defence, while in attack Patrik Berger was preferred to Stan Collymore.
Brann, the surprise quarter-finalists, were pinning their hopes on their 23-year-old striker, Tore Andre Flo, who scored 19 goals last season. However, the Norwegians decided not to risk Mons Ivar Mjelde, the top scorer in the competition with six goals, as he had not trained properly all week because of a stomach strain.
With the compact Brann Stadium packed to its Uefa limit of 12,700 for the biggest match in the club's history, Liverpool looked shaky in the opening stages, but it was the Premiership side which made the early breakthrough. Ruddock knocked the ball forward and Stig Inge Bjornebye released Fowler. He cleverly flicked the ball over Eirik Skjaelaaen before thumping a powerful shot into the bottom corner for his 23rd goal of the season.
Liverpool were chasing their third victory away from home in Europe and this was just the start they wanted. There was another moment of danger for the home side when the defender Stefan Paldan lost his bearings as he attempted to head the ball back to his goalkeeper, Vidar Bahus, but succeeded only in putting Berger clear. However, the Czech midfielder shot into the side-netting.
Ruddock did well at the heart of the Liverpool defence and got in timely challenges from the dangerous Flo and Skjaelaaen, while Hasund made an opening, only to fire high into the crowd.
Liverpool were rocked back on their heels two minutes into the second half. There seemed little danger when Hasund picked the ball up in the penalty area, but he swung his right foot and fired a stunning shot beyond David James. The home fans went wild and the appearance of Mjelde after the interval seemed to give them an extra lift.
Fowler was only inches away from restoring Liverpool's advantage in the 56th minute. John Barnes put him clear and from 20 yards he tried to chip Bahus, but the ball drifted too far at the last moment and bounced off the top of the bar.
Brann hit back and Morten Pedersen managed to evade Jason McAteer's challenge only to steer the ball wide. Harkness picked up a booking after 67 minutes for a stiff challenge on Agust Gylfason, but Liverpool began to take the initiative again. Berger drifted away from his marker and latched on to a ball from Steve McManaman. He tried to curl it into the top corner beyond Bahus but succeeded only in steering it wide.
James made a magnificent block from Flo 10 minutes from time, but Liverpool will go into the second leg in two weeks' time in good heart, still in the hunt for the only European trophy to have eluded them.
Brann knocked out PSV Eindhoven in the last round and Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said: "As we predicted, it was a tough old game. They said they would make it difficult and they did. We cooled after a good opening, but overall I was happy with the result. It was a truly great goal by Robbie Fowler. It's nice to see one go in for a change.
"It's nice to have the away goal, but it's not over yet. They are one tough team - their record speaks for itself."
SK Brann: Bahus; Paldan, Eltevaag, P Ludvigsen, Pedersen, Skjaelaaen, Hasund, Helland, Moen (Mjelde, h-t), Gylfason, Flo. Substitutes not used: Norebo, Johannessen, Tenden, Hollund (gk).
Liverpool: James; McAteer, Matteo, Harkness, Ruddock, Bjornebye, McManaman, Berger, Fowler, Barnes, Redknapp. Substitutes not used: Collymore, Kennedy, Babb, Jones, Warner (gk).
Referee: N Levnikov (Russia).Reuse content