Gerrard's strike deflates Watford balloon

Liverpool 1 - Watford 0
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The Independent Online

Always, whenever he thought of Anfield, Ray Lewington would have winced. Nineteen years ago he had taken his Fulham side to Liverpool in a League Cup tie and lost 10-0. Sir Alex Ferguson used to say that no manager should concede 10, the humiliation is just too much. Until last night Lewington had not been back.

Always, whenever he thought of Anfield, Ray Lewington would have winced. Nineteen years ago he had taken his Fulham side to Liverpool in a League Cup tie and lost 10-0. Sir Alex Ferguson used to say that no manager should concede 10, the humiliation is just too much. Until last night Lewington had not been back.

This morning the Watford manager will think of the great stadium and feel a surge of deep satisfaction. But for another intervention from Steven Gerrard, Watford would have held Liverpool to a draw in the first leg of this Carling Cup semi-final and would have backed themselves in the return at Vicarage Road. As it was, he would have settled for a 1-0 defeat.

Whether or not Watford make it to Cardiff, they will remember this night. Before kick-off the thousands who had travelled to Merseyside from Hertfordshire sent hundreds of balloons and swirls of confetti drifting up into the night sky. Those littering the pitch were burst as Steve Dunn started the tie which made it sound as if Anfield were in the grip of a coup d'état. What followed was not revolutionary but the balance of power was not as clear-cut as many might have imagined.

To Watford the statistics must have seemed as intimidating as a cliff face cased in ice. This was Liverpool's 13th League Cup semi-final - Watford boasted the experience of just one 26 years ago which ended in defeat to Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest. Liverpool had only lost once at home in the competition to a lower league side and that to a wildly improbable Grimsby goal.

Paul Jones, brought in on loan by Lewington from Wolverhampton reserves, had picked the ball out of the net seven times in a single match at Anfield while serving as Southampton's goalkeeper. Watford had not managed any kind of victory outside Vicarage Road since October. There was only one place for the smart money.

Four years ago, Crystal Palace had come to Anfield for a League Cup semi-final and imploded and it seemed reasonable to expect Watford, who have been sliding down the Championship table, to have done the same. Instead, inspired by their captain, Gavin Mahon, who anchored the centre of their midfield, they had pummelled Liverpool to a standstill by half-time.

In truth, had Watford shown more composure in front of goal, they might even have gone into the interval ahead. Twice Hameur Bouazza, who had the time and space to do much more, snatched at his chance while Brynjar Gunnarsson's free header was directed straight into Jerzy Dudek's gloves. Only once in the opening 45 minutes did they make a defensive error; when Gunnarsson hurriedly conceded a corner in the final seconds.

Liverpool, who in their 12 previous League Cup semi-finals had not lost a home leg, began with extraordinary timidity against a side that had managed one win in the League in their last 13 matches. Although Antonio Nuñez had his footballing education at Real Madrid, his wing play last night owed little to Luis Figo. Only once in an arid first half did he produce a worthwhile cross, which Florent Sinama-Pongolle promptly volleyed high into the Kop. When Gerrard chipped cleverly on to the roof of Jones's net, there was a gust of relief around the stadium grateful for any kind of invention from the home side.

The tie followed a similar pattern to last month's Premiership match with Portsmouth; after a truly abject first half, Liverpool recovered their poise in the second and emphasised it with Gerrard's goal.

When Rafael Benitez chose to substitute Neil Mellor immediately after the young striker had been put clean through and driven his shot against Jones's legs, it must have appeared unduly ruthless. Nevertheless, three minutes after his introduction Mellor's replacement, Milan Baros, tore through Watford's right flank to hammer in a low cross that Jones could only palm into Gerrard's path. Neil Cox was brave enough to get his head in the way of the Liverpool captain's shot and unlucky enough to see it ricochet into the net in front of the Anfield Road Stand, into which thousands of his club's fans were shoehorned. For Watford to have conceded at all was cruel but to have given it as an own-goal on this night would have been especially pitiless.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek; Finnan, Carragher, Traoré, Riise; Nuñez, Gerrard, Hamann (Biscan, 71), Garcia; Sinama-Pongolle (Warnock, 78), Mellor (Baros, 53). Substitutes not used: Harrison (gk), Potter.

Watford (4-5-1): Jones; Chambers, Cox, DeMerit, Darlington; Devlin, Ardley (Blizzard, 82), Mahon, Gunnarsson, Bouazza; Helguson. Substitutes not used: Chamberlain (gk), Dyer, Webber, Doyley.

Referee: S Dunn (Gloucestershire).

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