Gerrard double shines way for Liverpool in murky trip

Graz AK 0 - Liverpool 2
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The Independent Football

While Michael Owen appears to be heading to pastures new Liverpool can at least take solace from the fact that their captain Steven Gerrard turned down the Chelsea millions and put his side within touching distance of the Champions' League group stages here last night.

Gerrard scored twice as Liverpool beat AK Graz 2-0 here in the final qualifying round first leg match, the two away goals giving them real hope of participating with the big players and earning the associated income.

Liverpool, without Owen, out-played the Austrian double winners, and Gerrard was only denied a hat-trick by a linesman's flag against a colleague.

And watching all this from the bench, and not getting cup-tied with transfer talk all around, was Owen, contemplating a move overseas.

The tie was a triumph for the new coach Rafael Benitez who had to contend with all the Owen problems that overshadowed the build-up to a game Liverpool dared not lose.

Now they are a second leg away from what will be vital funds for Liverpool's future. Whether Owen is around in a fortnight to see the expected successful conclusion at Anfield to this tie is debatable. He was left on the bench with his future at Liverpool still in doubt as Benitez embarked on a crucial Champions' League qualifier.

It was an awful dilemma for the new Spanish coach. Play him and see Owen's transfer market valuation plunge if he was cup-tied, or try to get through a game that decided the club's future in terms of finances and status without him. A £13m gamble.

Benitez gave £2m new boy Josemi his debut at right-back, with Milan Baros partnering another new signing - Djibril Cissé - up front in place of Owen.

The speculation over Owen, the sale of Danny Murphy and the loss of a dozen players this summer from Liverpool's squad had given Benitez a crisis in his very first game as manager with qualification for the next stage absolutely vital.

But the new coach was urging and instructing from the first seconds, and Liverpool pressed forward with confidence and possession. On 23 minutes Liverpool took the lead with a fine goal from Gerrard. Harry Kewell had worked a position on the left and laid the ball back across the area into the captain's stride some 30 yards out. Gerrard hit the ball perfectly, and it crashed high into the top corner with the goalkeeper beaten.

Four minutes later it could have been two. Steve Finnan's ball put Baros into a dangerous position on the right, he spun away from his marker and drilled a low ball to the far post where Cissé was fractionally late arriving. Dietmar Hamann twice, Baros and Cissé could have added further goals before the break.

The pattern continued in the second period, Liverpool spinning the ball around with confidence while Graz had barely had a shot to test Jerzy Dudek.

Liverpool thought they had scored a second goal when Gerrard unleashed a fierce volley from outside the box. But the French referee Alain Sars penalised Cissé in the build-up as he tried a bicycle kick that missed ball and man.

Cissé and Baros were not clicking and the final ball into the Frenchman was not accurate enough. Baros was withdrawn to send on another midfielder, Salif Diao, after 72 minutes. The Austrians had already sent on Mario Bazina and Gernot Sick to try to liven things up.

Finally Liverpool did get their second on 80 minutes. Gerrard broke swiftly from defence and this time the ball for Cissé was perfect as he surged away down the left. He cut in and pushed a pass to Kewell who spun to find Gerrard now unmarked on the right having run fully 80 yards to reach a position to drill a low shot into the bottom corner.

Liebherr GAK: Scheuer, Tokic, Ehmann, Ramusch, Standfest, Muratovic, Skoro, Amerhauser, Pogatetz, Aufhauser, Kollmann. Substitutes: Almer, Daniel Pirker, Bazina, Sick, Majstorovic, Plassnegger.

Liverpool: Dudek, Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise, Kewell, Gerrard, Hamann, Josemi, Cisse, Baros. Substitutes: Kirkland, Henchoz, Potter, Owen, Diao, Sinama Pongolle, Warnock.

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