Football: Goals come too late for 'magnificent' Liverpool

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Dave Hadfield

Liverpool 2 Strasbourg 0

Strasbourg win 3-2 on aggregate

It was, as it had always looked, if not mission impossible then mission highly improbable. Despite a stirring and relentless cavalry charge and the boost of two second-half goals to revive their hopes, Liverpool had left themselves with too much to do in the second leg of this Uefa Cup- tie.

For the second year running they went out of Europe 3-2 on aggregate to a French club after conceding too much ground across the Channel. No one could fault their fierce determination to try to repair the damage last night, but that damage was, in the final analysis, too severe.

If Liverpool had made their breakthrough earlier, from one of their spells of intense pressure like the one midway through the first half or the one at the start of the second, they would almost certainly have taken this tie into extra time.

But it was 63 minutes before they got their first goal, through Robbie Fowler's penalty, and five minutes from the end before Karlheinz Riedle raised the fervent atmosphere to new heights. In the end, they simply ran out of time.

The fear that the lack of a quick goal would doom them to failure was growing stronger by the minute when Riedle - one of two extra attackers thrown on as Liverpool adopted a formation more reminiscent of the playground than the professional football field - turned sharply on Paul Ince's pass and was bundled over by Olivier Dacourt. Fowler, whose instinctive 40- yard shot had been Liverpool's most spectacular near-miss up to this point, put the penalty away firmly in the bottom corner.

Then again, if Liverpool had grabbed a quick second, few at Anfield would have bet against them digging themselves out of the hole they had dug themselves into in Strasbourg. But by this stage Liverpool had so many attackers in the penalty area that they were in each other's way, Riedle blocking Michael Owen's shot and Fowler obstructing Patrik Berger's.

Steve McManaman, playing wide on both right and left at various junctures, came into the middle to see a header hit the foot of the goalkeeper, Alexander Vencel, whilst the inspiring Ince, a yapping terrier in the midst of the alsatians, just missed the post with an effort from his head that seemed to be on its way in.

With time running out, though, Ince put the ball back into the area once more, McManaman headed on and Riedle was there to nod into the roof of the net.

The great escape was back within the range of possibilities, but Liverpool, despite throwing David James upfield to complete their death-or-glory line-up, could not complete their getaway.

At least, after the frustration of a first half during which Strasbourg generally held them well at bay, they had gone out fighting vigorously and with considerable enterprise.

"We went out with all guns blazing and with a touch of good fortune we could still have been in there," the Liverpool manager, Roy Evans, said. "It has been a magnificent effort and I can only praise the lads. What they put into it tonight was absolutely fantastic and if we put that sort of hard work into every match we will win 99 times out of 100."

With the memories of the similar exit at the hands of Paris St-Germain still fresh in his mind, Evans was on familiar territory when he said "to come back from 3-0 is very difficult. We didn't get the early goal that would have put them under pressure."

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; Jones (Riedle, 56), Kvarme, Matteo, Bjornebye (Berger, 52); McManaman, Leonhardsen, Ince, Redknapp, Owen, Fowler. Substitutes not used: McAteer, Nielsen (gk), Harkness, Ruddock, Murphy.

Strasbourg: (4-4-2): Vencel; Suchoparek, Ismael (Rott, 53), Okpara, Collet; Dacourt, Baticle, M'Ghoghi, Kinet (Rabbah, 58); Conteh, Zitelli. Substitutes not used: Rott, Arpinon, Miceli, Klein (gk), Keller, Avril.

Referee: R Pedersen (Norway).