Gerrard rises to the captaincy challenge

Liverpool 3 Olimpija Ljubljana 0 Liverpool win 4-1 on agg
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The Independent Football

Olimpija Ljubljana's players took videos of Anfield as their bus nosed through the Shankly Gates and had they taken the camcorders on to the pitch, they would have had a momento of a quite irresistible Liverpool performance.

Gérard Houllier is fond of accentuating whatever positives he can find in his team. The opening two sentences of the Liverpool manager's post-match press conference contained the adjectives "wonderful", "brilliant" and "fantastic", and this time the hyperbole was probably justified.

But for some heroics from Ljubljana's goalkeeper, Borut Mavric, which included a penalty save from El Hadji Diouf, the Slovenians might have been completely swept away. "Sometimes you forget about your team and just enjoy the performance," Houllier said after a match which erased memories of their stodgy, listless first-leg display in the foothills of the Balkans that caused some members of the Olimpija side to question their desire. Last night they had their answer.

Liverpool showed the same attacking panache which characterised their games against Charlton and Arsenal, matches that should have been won but which, because of a failure to take chances, were lost. This time there were no such errors.

Houllier's decision to elevate Steven Gerrard to the captaincy was rewarded by a fine, mature performance. An English team needed an English captain, Houllier had remarked before kick-off, adding: "Now Stevie is emotionally more mature and ready to take the responsibility." His finest offering, a perfectly judged crossfield ball, should have provided a spectacular opening had Emile Heskey not slipped in the penalty area. On another evening it might have mattered.

Heskey's miss could have been damning had Liverpool not already scored the opening goal, which, given the huge disparity in resources between these two sides, realistically sealed the tie. It was created after half an hour by the width which had been so lacking at Anfield last season.

A cross from Diouf was met with a diving, flailing punch from Mavric that went as far as Anthony le Tallec, who drove it straight back into a now unguarded net. It was an important moment for the teenager, who had looked overawed when he had been asked to step out into the fierce spotlight of Premiership football.

The same could probably be said of Heskey's goal seven minutes later, his 50th for the club, although critics will complain that there should have been many more in the three years since his move from Leicester. There was, however, no absence of confidence last night as he clipped home Vladimir Smicer's incisive pass.

Liverpool, with Harry Kewell dancing through tackles on the edge of the area, might have had several more before the interval, although the Australian received his reward a minute after the restart when a crashing volley from Heskey's cross thundered into the net.

It might appear churlish to mention it but the defensive weaknesses which have plagued Houllier's side domestically again reappeared. Igor Biscan went missing from Croatia's squad before their final European Championship qualifier and last night he several times went AWOL again, errors which Liverpool were fortunate not to see punished. On other occasions, against better sides than a team which are not even champions of Slovenia, they might not be so lucky.

Liverpool: (4-4-2) Dudek, Finnan, Biscan, Hyypia, Riise, Diouf, Le Tallec (Sinama-Pongolle, 62), Gerrard (Diao, 78), Smicer (Henchoz, 67), Kewell, Heskey. Substitutes not used: Traore, Welsh, Potter, Kirkland (gk).

Olimpija Ljubljana: (3-5-2) Mavric, Mirtic, Grabic, Budicin, Barun, Radunja (Puc, 62), Zlogar, Kosic (Aljancic, 39), Ilic, Pokorn (Kmetec, h-t), Josufbegovic. Substitutes not used: Popovic, Radas, Kreft, Popivoda (gk).

Referee: S Messner (Austria).

* Hearts booked their place in the second round despite failing to score against Zeljeznicar in Bosnia. Hearts' victory at Tynecastle was enough to give them a 2-0 aggregate victory, but Dundee lost 1-0 at Perugia to go out 3-1 on aggregate.

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