LIVERPOOL GAINED the jewel of an away goal in their raid on the Spanish port of Vigo last night but whether it will help them to reach the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup is heavily clouded in doubt. As Aston Villa found to their own cost, even a good first leg against Celta does not guarantee progress.
A 3-1 defeat cannot be regarded in that light because Villa did far, far better, winning 1-0 at the Balaidos stadium in the previous round, and they still were beaten on aggregate by the enterprising Spaniards.
Michael Owen's first-half goal is precious but it will still require a performance of a quality that has been beyond Liverpool at Anfield recently if they are to prevail.
Celta scored three times in the second half through Alexander Mostovoi, Valery Karpin and Vladimir Gudelj and but for two outstanding saves by David James, would have put the tie beyond doubt. As it is, Celta, the first team from Spain to win a home European leg against Liverpool, are strong favourites, particularly as Jamie Redknapp and Vegard Heggem will miss the second leg after collecting yellow cards last night.
At 2-1, the night could have been considered a slight triumph for Liverpool, but an error by Bjorn Kvarme in injury time denied the visitors the plaudits they probably deserved for a gutsy night's work. The Norwegian hesitated as a cross came into the area and instead of clearing allowed the ball to reach Gudelj, who thumped it past James.
"I'm disappointed with the way we brought them back into the game with a succession of schoolboy errors," Gerard Houllier, the Liverpool manager, said. "They were silly goals. I felt if we could have kept our first-half advantage for 20 minutes more it would have been a different game."
It was a harsh ending to a night that had begun with limited promise for Liverpool, who were forewarned about Celta by their 3-2 aggregate win over Villa but disarmed because two of their most influential players, Paul Ince and Steve McManaman, were suspended after being sent off against Valencia. Their inconsistent form did not encourage hope either.
Celta surrendered their unbeaten Spanish league record to struggling Alaves on Saturday but, judging from their start, that surprise had done nothing to impair their confidence.
Three times in the opening 10 minutes the Spaniards' slick passing sliced through the Liverpool defence. After three minutes a long pass was lost by the visiting back four, who were looking for an offside as Juan Sanchez burst past them. The Spaniard was clear but his control let him down and the ball bounced through to James.
Twice more Sanchez had a glimpse of chance but Steve Staunton managed to block. Liverpool looked an uncoordinated shambles in this phase but when a goal did not come their discipline improved and the first hint that they might trouble the Celta defence came with it after 27 minutes.
Fernando Caceres slipped to allow Owen a clear route to the penalty area, but his shot was saved low to his left by Richard Dutruel and when Robbie Fowler provided a second chance Owen's volley was mis-hit straight at the goalkeeper.
The 18-year-old striker put his head in his hands at his lapse but his chance to make amends came six minutes later. He had been a fraction away from intercepting Oscar Vales' pass, but in their hurry to avert the danger Celta found David Thompson and with instant precision he arched a glorious ball beyond the Spanish back four. Owen was clear and this time he performed to his usual blessed standard, waiting for Dutruel to move before side- footing past him.
Owen took to the field for the second half with a bandage on his left wrist, an apt symbol for the whole Liverpool team, because within 10 minutes Celta had overtaken the visitors. Mostovoi started and finished the Spaniards' first goal after 50 minutes, slipping past a tackle before finding Hervas Tomas on the left. His cross was headed back by Sanchez and Mostovoi thumped a shot through a crowd of players.
Within seconds Sanchez was inches away from Luboslav Penev's cross but that reprieve for Liverpool was short-lived, because after 55 minutes Celta took the lead. Mostovoi's corner on the left was missed by Heggem and went to the far side of the area where Karpin hit a left-foot shot low past James and Thompson on the goal-line. A good result still beckoned but Gudelj denied Liverpool even that seconds from the end. It will take an Anfield night to remember to rescue this tie now.
Celta Vigo (4-4-2): Dutruel; Oscar Vales, Caceres, Djorovic, Tomas; Karpin (Caires, 83), Mazinho, Makelele, Mostovoi (Josema, 88); Sanchez, Penev (Gudelj, 83). Substitutes not used: Eggen, Cainzos, Cadete, Pinto (gk).
Liverpool (4-4-2): James; Heggem, Kvarme, Staunton, Bjornebye; Thompson Riedle, 77), Carragher, Redknapp, Berger (Babb, 84); Owen, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Leonhardsen, Murphy, Gerrard, Wright, Friedel (gk).
Referee: G Bikas (Greece).