Liverpool edged towards a successful resolution in their pursuit of Feyenoord's coveted striker Dirk Kuyt and Champions' League football last night; patience and persistence proving essential as Rafael Benitez closed in on his two remaining objectives for the summer.
An 88th-minute goal from Mark Gonzalez, three minutes after he ventured on to the Anfield pitch for the first time following a protracted move from Albacete, gave the 2005 champions a slender victory over Maccabi Haifa in a third qualifying round first leg that appeared set to give Liverpool more problems than where to play the second leg.
Uefa's decision to switch the tie to a neutral venue prompted the Israeli support to unfurl a banner that re-christened their hosts "Chicken-Pool", and their frustration at losing home advantage intensified following a performance that stretched Liverpool's composure and resources to the limit. "We can still dream of taking something from the second leg but we would have a much better chance if the game was in Tel Aviv," said Haifa manager Roni Levi. Cyprus is expected to be announced as the new venue tomorrow.
Earlier, Liverpool officials had re-opened talks with their Feyenoord counterparts over a £10m deal for Kuyt, the prolific Dutch international who has attracted interest from several Premiership clubs this summer including Newcastle and Manchester United. Liverpool have had one £10m bid rejected for the 26-year-old, although that deal involved £6m up front plus Jerzy Dudek and Jan Kromkamp as makeweights. Their latest offer is a straight payment of £10m, a fee within Liverpool's reach after the £2m sale of Djimi Traoré to Charlton, and Anfield officials are confident of clinching the player Benitez believes can help encourage a genuine title challenge.
Benitez's other attacking purchases of the summer, Craig Bellamy and Jermaine Pennant, made encouraging competitive debuts for their new club although, despite individual endeavour, Liverpool struggled to impose themselves on a technically gifted but lightweight Haifa side. The reigning Israeli champions stunned Anfield when they opened the scoring with their first attack, Gustavo Boccoli and Roberto Colautti combining for the midfielder to race through and beat Jose Reina with an accomplished finish.
Haifa's hysteria, however, lasted all of four minutes. Liverpool, driven by the excellent Mohamed Sissoko, lifted their game and levelled with their next attack, Bellamy pouncing on the loose ball after Maccabi keeper Nir Davidovitch could only parry a powerful shot.
Liverpool continued to dominate possession, but with substitute Peter Crouch missing one inviting chance and Luis Garcia having a strong penalty claim dismissed, it seemed they would have to settle for a draw. Then Gonzalez, introduced as a late substitute for Steven Gerrard, appeared on the end of Xabi Alonso's flighted ball into the box and clinched the victory. "It was a fantastic moment for Mark but a very important one for the team," said Benitez.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Pennant, Sissoko, Alonso, Zenden (Garcia, 55); Gerrard ( Gonzalez, 85); Bellamy (Crouch, 65). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Kromkamp, Paletta, Peltier.
Maccabi Haifa (4-2-3-1): Davidovitch; Harazi, Keinan, Olarra, Magrashvili; Dirceo, Anderson; Masudi (Meshumar, 90), Boccoli, Katan (Melicsohn, 85); Colautti. Substitutes not used: Almadon (gk), Kanan, Swan, Hemed, Gazal.
Referee: W Stark (Germany).