Heskey strike ends Fowler nightmare

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Liverpool 1 Slovan Liberec 0

Liverpool 1 Slovan Liberec 0

The past is a much-visited country at Anfield and last night's match programme delighted in the news that a survey in one of the football magazines still puts Liverpool's overallEuropean record above Manchester United's.

In that context, last night's desperate display against a team with little enough pedigree in Czech football, let alone the Uefa Cup, would have been an embarrassment, not least to Robbie Fowler who missed a penalty among a catalogue of chances in this second round, first leg. One goal, stabbed home by Emile Heskey four minutes from time, might, however, have given them some confidence for next month's journey to the bleak coalfields of Bohemia.

Liberec found the early going tough and were relentlessly pressed into their own half as Liverpool sought in vain the early knock-out that would insure them against any upsets in the tiny Mestsky stadium, whose capacity could be accommodated within the Kop twice over.

The fact that the young Fowler was once a part of this seething mass of Liverpool fandom means he has been granted a latitude by the supporters that would not be on offer if he hailed from, say, Milton Keynes. Since making his comeback in the previous round, a tedious goalless draw with Rapid Bucharest, Fowler has created and missed some glaring opportunities. Last night the pattern seemed to be no different, he had three first-half headers, a couple of shots but no goals. Other players might have been howled down.

The tie was a mere 62 seconds old when his stooping head met Patrik Berger's corner to force a fine low save from Zbynek Hauzr. Some 13 minutes later, another cross from a Czech, this time from Vladimir Smicer, found Fowler in an even better position. The range was almost point-blank, but Merseyside's finest got underneath his header which looped comfortably over.

Later in the half, as the opening goal threatened never to come, Fowler returned the favour; his low cross scudded past everyone and Smicer just failed to bundle it over the line.

Fowler's travails continued unabated as Danny Murphy, unimpressive as a striker, but used now in midfield, saw his attempt on goal cannon off a white shirt and fall into his captain's path. The ball did not run kindly, however, and became lost in a tangle of feet. Three minutes before half-time another cross, this time from Heskey, found Fowler in a perfect position but again the final shot lacked accuracy.

This was, admittedly, a Liverpool team weakened by the decision of the Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, to rest Sami Hyypia and Nick Barmby, but this was a performance only slightly less laboured than that against Rapid. True, Liberec'sattacks before the interval were limited to a tame header, but the Czechs had not come to Merseyside in search of goals.

And then Fowler was presented with a chance that could not be spurned when in the 53rd minute Dietmar Hamann was bundled over and the Swiss referee, Massimo Busacca, awarded a penalty. The Kop burned with expectation and their hero duly hammered his spot-kick among them. It was the stuff of nightmares. And still these supporters, the kind of fans players should die for, continued to chant his name.

Otherwise it was much as before; Liverpool kept attacking, and kept missing. Hamann and Berger both shot wide. Hauzr made a fine double save from Murphy and Smicer and, from the resulting corner, Markus Babbel's header brushed the top of the bar. Barmby and Gary McAllister were thrown on and frustration began to boil over.

You wonder what the BBC, for whom Liverpool in the Uefa Cup is their only foray into European football, made of it all. They have had to interest their audience first in the goalless draw with Rapid and now this. Viewing figures should be dwarfed by Songs of Praise.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld; Carragher, Henchoz, Babbel, Ziege; Smicer (Barmby, 69), Murphy (McAllister, 69), Hamann, Berger; Fowler, Heskey. Substitutes not used: Song, Hyypia, Traoré, Camara, Arphexad (gk).

Slovan Liberec (4-4-2): Hauzr; Lexa, Pilny, Johana, Capek; Neumann, Janu, Michalik, Kozuch; Stajner (Jun, 71), Lazzaro (Nezmar, 80). Substitutes not used: Breda, Bakes, Silny, Beno, Barta (gk).

Referee: M Busacca (Switzerland).