LIVERPOOL STAGED a stirring recovery to snatch an unlikely victory in the Uefa Cup in Spain last night. However, their triumph was tarnished in the last minute when both Steve McManaman and Paul Ince were sent off along with Valencia's Amadeo Carboni. The Italian had struck McManaman, who retaliated. Ince had to be dragged away by Jason McAteer and Steve Staunton in the aftermath of McManaman's confrontation with Carboni, and was also shown the red card.
Ince is already serving a three-match international ban from Uefa for receiving a red card in England's opening European Championship qualifier in Sweden and was later charged with misconduct by the Football Association for making a V-sign during September's match in Stockholm. Last night's reaction will not have endeared him to FA officials considering Ince's future.
Roy Evans, the Liverpool joint manager, said: "We battled back and deserved the result. But the referee may have lost the plot a little bit with Ince trying to hold the player off. But he's ended up sending off two of ours. It sours the night. It wasn't a dirty game."
In a compelling final minutes, Valencia equalised on the night when a Claudio Lopez free-kick hit a post, bounced back to hit David James, and then spun over the line.
However, it was not enough to deny Liverpool a place in the third round of a European competition in which, after a night of English disappointment elsewhere, they emerged as the Premiership's sole remaining representatives.
They are in a fortunate position, having been outplayed for much of the match. Yet Liverpool responded with two goals in the dying minutes through McManaman and Patrik Berger to take the lead on aggregate following a goalless draw at Anfield in the first leg of this second-round tie.
Liverpool were under intense pressure from the start in the intimidating atmosphere of the packed, high-sided Mestalla stadium. The Romanian Adrian Ilie and Argentina's Lopez tormented Liverpool's defence. But, in the midst of almost constant pressure, Liverpool nearly scored. McManaman strode on to a Berger lay-off after eight minutes and drove a 20-yard shot against the post. The ball bounced out, hit the goalkeeper, Santiago Canizares, in the back and broke for Berger to blast the rebound wide.
Valencia swiftly countered. Jamie Carragher lost the ball after 13 minutes, and Ilie put Lopez through. James was alone in the box as the Argentinian ran on, but the Liverpool goalkeeper held his nerve, stayed on his feet, and the striker pushed his shot wide of the upright. A minute later, another Staunton error let in Lopez again, but James made an agile save to his left.
Liverpool gave away a string of free-kicks, as Valencia heaped on the pressure. Carboni went on one jinking run to win a corner, and when the ball was only half-cleared to him, the Italian forced James into another save.
The goal finally came in first-half injury time when Ilie lashed a shot against the post, and Lopez drove in the rebound.
The second half saw Liverpool trying to slow the pace of the game. Michael Owen's pace seemed a viable option, and the youngster, who was left out of the first leg, ran himself ragged up front.
Valencia opted to sit back and defend their lead, and that proved their undoing. With 10 minutes left, Owen won possession on the right, crossed to the far post, and McManaman steamed in to head Liverpool level. They were now through on the away-goals rule but, with four minutes left, Berger put this most improbable result beyond doubt with a stunning left-foot drive to give Liverpool the lead.
The victory will considerably ease the pressure on the Liverpool managerial partnership of Evans and Gerard Houllier. A distinctly erratic domestic season now has a European focus to ease any criticism of the pair.
Evans added: "It was a great night. We put on a fantastic performance. We never lost our heads, we never put our heads down after the goal at the end of the first half. Our lads have given a fantastic effort and attitude. I hope people take notice of that."
Valencia: Canizares; Djukic, Mendieta, Lopez, Schwartz, Ilie (Lucarelli, 75), Bjorklund, Carboni, Popescu, Angulo, Soria. Substitutes not used: Bartual (gk), Juanfran, Camarasa, Farinos, Milla, Tellez.
Liverpool: James; Staunton, McManaman, Fowler (McAteer, 85), Owen, Redknapp, Heggem (Dundee, 79), Berger (Harkness, 89, Ince, Bjornebye, Carragher. Substitutes: Friedel (gk), Kvarme, Leonhardsen, Thompson.
Referee: G Veissiere (France).
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