Liverpool sweat as Gerrard watches

Liverpool 0 - CSKA Sofia 1 (Liverpool win 3-2 on agg)
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The Independent Football

A below-strength side conceded an early goal, could have let in a couple more and generally struggled against opponents they had dominated in their first meeting. Liverpool have had some great European nights of late; this was not one.

With the tie apparently won in the first leg two weeks ago, it was doubtful whether Steven Gerrard would have played in this game under any circumstances. As expected, he sat it out with a calf injury, with Dietmar Hamann taking his place in midfield, and he remains a major doubt for the European Super Cup against CSKA Moscow in Monaco on Friday, not to mention the next two England internationals.

With Milan Baros finally departed for Aston Villa and Peter Crouch still unavailable, Rafael Benitez was left with a strike force of Djibril Cissé and Fernando Morientes, who had already shown a liking for the Bulgarian defence with two goals in Sofia. Darren Potter was in a wide midfield position that could soon be occupied by Stelios Giannakopoulos if rumours of a move from Bolton are true.

Those with long memories might have been wary of CSKA on the grounds that they knocked Liverpool out of what was then the European Cup in 1982 after losing the first leg. There was little sign of that as Liverpool went close after five minutes, when Dejan Maksic saved at the feet of Cissé who soon drove another effort wide when set up by Morientes. Morientes himself fired over as Liverpool continued to find it relatively easy to get within sight of the Bulgarian goal.

Then, after 15 minutes, the unthinkable. Mohamed Sissoko was adjudged, perhaps a little harshly, to have fouled Radoslav Zabavnik out towards the right corner flag, the free-kick was rolled into the middle by Iordan Yurukov and Valentin Iliev struck a curling right-footer wide of the despairing dive of Scott Carson and just inside the far post.

It could have been worse. Yordan Todorov chipped just over after Carson saved at the feet of Guillaume Dah Zadi. A couple of feet lower and what had seemed a routine tie could have been level on aggregate.

Cissé had a fierce shot saved when set up by Hamann's free-kick, but the European champions were looking edgy and Sami Hyypya had to clear when Zadi whipped the ball across and again when Yurukov broke .

Sofia were looking infinitely more dangerous than in the first leg, with Todorov and Emil Gargorov repeatedly stretching an unconvincing Liverpool defence when they counterattacked.

There was little bite to Liverpool's work at the other end of the field either, with Sissoko's mis-hit shot past the upright the best effort they could muster in the minutes leading up to half-time.

There was drama in the last two minutes as Sissoko hit the bar and Velizar Dimitrov had a goal disallowed for offside, but Liverpool lived to fight another day and surely play much better than this.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Carson; Finnan, Hyypia, Josemi, Warnock (Zenden, 64); Potter (Garcia, h-t), Hamann, Sissoko, Riise; Morientes, Cissé (Sinama-Pongolle, 82) Substitutes not used: Reina (gk),Alonso, Carragher, Barragan.

CSKA Sofia (4-2-3-1): Maksic; Zabavnik, Iliev, Gueye, Silva; Hdiouad, Todorov; Gargorov, V Dimitrov, Yurukov (Sakaliev, 72); Zadi (P Dimitrov, 84). Substitutes: Kyuchukov (gk), Olegov, Zafirov,Ivanov, Matic.

Referee: Stark (Germany)

l The tiny Swiss club Thun secured a most unlikely place among the élite of European football by clinching their place in the group stages of the Champions' League last night when they defeated the Swedish champions, Malmo, 3-0 in the second leg of their third qualifying round tie at Wankdorf Stadium in Berne, thus achieving a remarkable 4-0 aggregate victory.