Liverpool's defence keeps Totti at bay

Roma 0 Liverpool 0
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The Independent Football

Wembley used to be regarded as Liverpool's second home. With the old lady mothballed that honour now appears to have passed to here. Four visits have brought three wins, two European Cup trophies and one goal against, by Borussia Moenchengladbach's Allan Simonsen 24 years ago.

Last night another clean sheet, earned through discipline, composure and hard-work, revived Liverpool's hopes of a record-equalling fifth European Cup. With Barcelona held at home by Galatasaray, Group B now closes for Christmas with three points separating four teams. Liverpool may be bottom of the quartet, but no one is out of reach.

The scoreline may suggest Liverpool came to frustrate, as they had at Barcelona last season. That would be wrong. For the first 45 minutes they were the more enterprising team. After that home pressure, and an understandable desire to protect their point, prompted a drawing in of the wagons. So successful was this only in injury-time, when the previously flawless Jerzy Dudek spilled an Assuncao shot, were Liverpool worried. They need not have been. Gabriel Batistuta, the legendary Argentine goalscorer, was understandably prowling the vicinity, but Stéphane Henchoz got there first.

Thus it was throughout the match. Beforehand Corriere della Sport, Rome's sports newspaper, devoted a whole page to comparing Francesco Totti and Michael Owen. Instead of the fêted No 10s they should have featured Henchoz and Sami Hyypia, his central defensive partner. Hyypia faltered just once, but Dudek came to his aid. Otherwise, for all Totti's impressive prompting, Roma could find no way past them.

"This can give us the confidence to qualify from the group," said Phil Thompson, Liverpool's caretaker manager. "I thought we dominated the first half and I was disappointed to come in level. I thought we were two goals better than Roma."

Capello admitted his team "did not play" in the first half-hour adding he thought the group would go to the last game. He suggested Liverpool were "one of the teams who could win the Champions' League" and said they had never "allowed his team into dangerous positions." However, he could not resist repeating his pre-match criticism of their approach. "I still think they are a team who rely on being patient," he said. Capello, who is constantly linked with a move to Old Trafford, is already saying the things Manchester United fans want to hear. Albeit in Italian.

With the local media lapping up Capello's pre-match charge that Liverpool were 'boring' the gallorossi massed on the curva sud must have been surprised to see white shirts running towards them throughout the first half. With Dietmar Hamann seizing midfield, Liverpool won a series of free-kicks and corners. Yet their first real opportunity, in the 15th minute, arrived from open play. Vladimir Smicer, drifting in behind Jonathan Zebina, met a long ball from Jamie Carragher with a sharp volley which Francesco Antonioli got down to save.

Batistuta then suffered an embarrassing miss. Released into space by a superb pass from Totti, 'Batigol' completely mis-kicked and the ball skewed off towards the corner flag.

A few minutes later it was his Liverpool counterparts' turn to falter. Antonioli, under pressure from Hyypia, flapped at a high ball. It fell to Owen, but, unusually, he could not get the ball out from under his feet quick enough. Hyypia, reacting quickly, rolled the ball back to Emile Heskey but, with the goal half-guarded, he shot wide.

Capello responded to the stalemate by bringing on Assuncao, for Uruguay's Guigou. He was one of several players to indulge in some ambitious long-range shooting as Henchoz and Hyypia held the centre and Carragher and John Arne Riise barred the flanks.

Thompson added Patrick Berger and Gary McAllister to the midfield mix, but they could not prevent the increasingly influential Totti causing problems. He won one free-kick which Assuncão clipped into the side netting, then tested Dudek himself from another. In between he volleyed over.

As time ran out Emerson twice had chances to break the deadlock but sent a free header, from Totti's 82nd minute corner, straight at Dudek then did the same with a shot from the edge of the area.

With Henchoz maintaining his concentration to the end Liverpool held on. "Pah. They are like an old-style Italian team," said the Roman journalist next to me in disgust. Thompson will take that as a compliment.

Roma (3-5-2): Antonioli; Zebina, Samuel, Aldair; Guigou (Assuncão, h-t), Tommasi (Fuser, 78), Emerson, Lima, Candela; Totti, Batistuta. Substitutes not used: Cejas (gk), Zago, Cufre, Cassano, Delvecchio

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek; Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Riise; Murphy (Berger, 61), Gerrard (Biscan, 84) Hamann, Smicer (McAllister, 63); Owen, Heskey. Substitutes not used: Kirkland (gk), Diomède, Wright, Litmanen.

Referee: D Jol (Netherlands).