Liverpool find firepower to buy time for Houllier

Liverpool 2 Levski Sofia 0
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The Independent Football

Crisis, what crisis? Liverpool put three days of speculation and debate over the future of Gérard Houllier behind them in what was ultimately impressive fashion in last night's Uefa Cup third-round, first-leg encounter at Anfield.

After more than an hour of obdurate defence by the Bulgarians of Levski Sofia, Steven Gerrard and Harry Kewell each scored thrillingly in the space of four minutes. Liverpool thus take a two-goal cushion into the return fixture next week.

Gerrard pointedly ran across to embrace his beleaguered manager after his breakthrough goal. The home faithful, at first apprehensive about declaring support for him, finished the evening singing "Allez, allez, Houllier" for the first time in a long time.

The threatened demonstration against Houllier's management failed to materialise before the match. There were no placards demanding the Frenchman's dismissal to be seen anywhere in the stadium. Equally, though, chants in his support were conspicuous by their absence.

That said, the mood within the stadium was not the kind one normally associates with a club in crisis, real or imaginary. Liverpool made an appropriately positive start, with Milan Baros showing strongly amid the early cut and thrust.

In the 12th minute, the Czech striker appealed in vain for a penalty after tumbling under a challenge from Ilian Stoianov. Barely a minute later, he headed inches wide after Dimitar Ivankov had come for Danny Murphy's corner and missed it.

Baros's purposeful start brought him a heavily muddied shirt before some colleagues had broken sweat. As well as Stoianov's legitimate attentions, he was brought down illegally by Konstantin Golovskoy, who was cautioned for his trouble. The gloved midfielder, an elegant mover and deft passer, showed the more wholesome side to his game with a shot that Chris Kirkland did well to tip behind midway through the first half.

Levski, who are second in their domestic league, looked more assured as the half went on. Quickly pulling numbers behind the ball to frustrate Liverpool, they exuded the confidence born of a record that showed only one defeat in any competition this season. That came against the Bulgarian leaders, Lokomotiv Plovdiv, their trips to Kazakhstan, Israel and Slavia Prague in previous rounds having produced two wins and a draw.

After 35 minutes came the first rumblings of dissent from the Kop, a somewhat anguished exhortation to "Attack, attack, attack". In truth, the way Levski were organised, with only one advanced player, made them difficult to break down. Liverpool needed to exploit their set-pieces, but another corner, this time taken by Gerrard, saw Sami Hyypia fail to make contact with Ivankov again flapping like a kipper.

Ivankov's fallibility on crosses was counter-balanced by his agility. Three minutes after half-time, Murphy's spiralling cross deceived defenders but was well read by Michael Owen. His header carried power and placement. Yet the keeper plunged to his right to ensure Levski conceded no more than a corner.

Owen, having endured a subdued opening half by his own standards, was suddenly the focal point of Liverpool's better moves. After the tireless Gerrard and Dietmar Hamann had combined to put him clear, only the quick reactions of Ivankov in hurtling from his line prevented Owen from putting his shot on goal rather than just behind.

When Liverpool's initial flurry after the break came to nothing, the crowd were again becalmed. Levski rediscovered their earlier composure, but then the home side struck with two thunderous goals.

Both followed short-corner routines. In the 67th minute, Steve Finnan's cross was headed clear by Asen Bukarev, but only as far as Gerrard. From 20 yards, he struck a vicious half-volley through a crowded penalty area which barely left the ground before nestling in the net.

Before Levski could regroup, Finnan and Kewell conspired on a flag kick. The ball was worked to the Australian, who had moved to the angle of the 18-yard area. His diagonal shot fairly tore past Ivankov.

Liverpool (4-1-3-2): Kirkland; Finnan, Hyypia, Henchoz, Carragher; Hamann; Murphy, Gerrard, Kewell (Diouf, 85); Owen, Baros (Cheyrou, 89). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Le Tallec, Traoré, Biscan, Welsh.

Levski Sofia (5-4-1): Ivankov; Borimirov (Stankov, 76), Topuzakov, Stoianov, Markov, L Wagner; Temile (Telkiyski, 70), Bukarev, Golovskoy, Vidolov (Chilikov, 70); G Ivanov. Substitutes not used: Petkov (gk), B Ivanov, Simonovic, Angelov.

Referee: R Temmink (Netherlands).