Gerrard's hat-trick has Kop in raptures

Liverpool 3 Tns 0

The Liverpool captain was afforded a raucous reception as he ran to the Kop for the first time since his dalliance with the exit door eight days ago and responded with the first hat-trick of his professional career, single-handedly breaking the stubborn resistance of TNS Llansantffraid in the first-round qualifier.

Gerrard is anxious to forget the events of this summer but fortunately for the Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, he has not forgotten the art of dragging his team through every test this competition has to offer.

"He is unbelievable," said the TNS manager, Ken McKenna, after seeing a respectable scoreline snatched away by the midfielder's third goal, a fierce 20-yard strike a minute from time. "He played against a Welsh League side as though we were AC Milan and we could not stop a player of that calibre."

But for Gerrard's final touch of an otherwise forgettable event TNS would have been celebrating a margin of defeat they would have deemed improbable before kick-off and impossible after 21 minutes when they were two goals down to the England midfielder.

Professionally, the 25-year-old has nothing to prove to the Liverpool faithful, though many needed to be convinced by his reaction to an unseemly contract dispute. As Benitez said: "It was important for Stevie to do a good job in front of our supporters tonight. He did a very good job."

The Liverpool manager had good reason to salute Gerrard, his contribution having made the difference between a safe passage towards round two and an embarrassing night against McKenna's well-drilled, if initially star-struck, side. There was no disgrace for TNS in conceding as many goals in 90 minutes at Anfield as Milan did in five in Istanbul, only disappointment that their lingering hopes of keeping the tie interesting died with the final, exquisite shot of the game from Gerrard. That was a testament to the damage limitation exercise employed by TNS and the performance of their captain and goalkeeper, Gerard Doherty, as he thrived on the biggest test of his professional career. Fine saves from Fernando Morientes, Anthony Le Tallec and Steve Finnan kept the scoreline respectable for 89 minutes but Doherty could not prevent Gerrard bringing an emphatic closure to his own turbulent summer.

The Liverpool captain opened his account in the eighth minute, rounding off a flowing move with a simple finish. In the 21st minute a moment's hesitation from centre-half Steve Evans exposed the gulf between the leagues. Gerrard seized on a lapse that would have gone unpunished across the border, and left Doherty stranded with a nonchalant lob from 18 yards.

The only uncertainty to emerge from Anfield surrounded the Liverpool careers of Jerzy Dudek and Milan Baros, neither of whom took to the field as Benitez left them eligible for any would-be Champions' League suitor. Dudek, ensured of a place in Liverpool folklore for his performance against Milan, could not even claim a place on the bench against TNS.

His fall from grace has been swift, but Liverpool suffered no such ignominy in the opening defence of their European crown.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Warnock (Zenden, 64); Potter (Cissé, 76), Gerrard, Alonso, Riise; Le Tallec, Morientes. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Baros, Hamann, Josemi, Whitbread.

TNS Llansantffraid (4-5-1): Doherty; Baker, Jackson, Evans, King; Wood, Naylor, Holmes (Lawless, 72), Ruscoe, Ward (Leah, 82); Wilde (Beck, 59). Substitutes not used: Acton (gk), Lloyd-Williams, Lawless, Toner, Hogan.

Referee: J Van De Velde (Bel).

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