It may have been a riled Rafael Benitez who arrived here to face accusations of cowardice and conspiracy but it was a relieved Liverpool manager who left Ukraine last night carrying the one luxury he was always intent on taking from Maccabi Haifa; a place in the lucrative group stages of the Champions' League.
His presence as the public face of Liverpool protests against staging this second leg of the third qualifying round on Israeli soil had provoked an angry, emotional response from Haifa, who deemed Uefa's decision to switch the tie to a neutral venue as an affront and a sign of favouritism towards Europe's leading clubs. Those passions were transferred into another belligerent display from their players, but ultimately their grievance at being deprived of home advantage was compounded as Liverpool survived several late scares to edge into tomorrow's draw and claim a guaranteed £12m in prize-money.
Relief at securing the kudos and euros on offer from Europe's premier event was not confined to Benitez and his squad. The Anfield hierarchy, having budgeted for Champions' League football before backing their manager to the tune of £25m this summer, will also take their seats in Monaco in silent prayer to Peter Crouch's 54th-minute header at the Valeri Lobanovskiy Stadium.
"We are happy and we are relieved," admitted the Liverpool manager. "We created a lot of clear chances in the first half but their goalkeeper was fantastic, for me the man of the match, and the more chances we missed the more our opponents believed they could keep going. In the end they gave us a lot of problems."
Benitez's assessment of a tense night for his side contained many truths. Liverpool did indeed dominate the opening hour, showing a threat that Haifa initially failed to match if relying too heavily on the long ball from a defence that was clearly intent on sitting deep and preserving the slender lead secured by Mark Gonzalez's winner at Anfield a fortnight earlier. Crouch and Xabi Alonso both shot narrowly wide early on while the Haifa goalkeeper, Nir Davidovitch, was inspired in denying Jermaine Pennant and Luis Garcia, twice, from close range before half-time. It was a strangely subdued performance from Liverpool, but their outlets were provided by the width of Pennant and Gonzalez, and it was the £6.5m summer signing from Birmingham who created the breakthrough for Crouch when he skipped clear of a feeble challenge from Haifa left back Hain Magrashvili and crossed for the England international to head home at the near post.
Instead of deflating at the setback, Haifa rallied, and found renewed hope nine minutes later when Anderson and Yaniv Katan combined to slice open the Liverpool defence, and Roberto Colautti pounced from close range after Jose Reina could only parry Anderson's shot. Liverpool held out in a fraught finale but progress came at a price. Having lost Jamie Carragher and John Arne Riise to injury on Saturday, and Steven Gerrard to a stomach complaint before kick-off, Liverpool suffered further disruption when the influential Mohamed Sissoko was carried off with a knee injury and Stephen Warnock limped off with an ankle problem. Early suggestions are that Sissoko could be out for three weeks.
However, the greatest misery was reserved for the Haifa coach, Roni Levy. "I am proud of my team but disappointed with the situation. We would have had a much better chance if we had played on our soil in front of our fans."
Maccabi Haifa (4-2-3-1): Davidovitch; Harazi, Keinan (Meshumar, 65), Olarra, Magrashvili; Dirceo, Anderson (Melichson, 72); Masudi (Arbaitman, 80), Boccoli, Katan; Colautti. Substitutes not used: Almadon (gk), Kanan, Swan, Gazal.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Agger, Warnock (Aurelio, 28); Pennant (Bellamy, 86), Sissoko (Gerrard, 67), Alonso, Gonzalez; Garcia; Crouch. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Kromkamp, Fowler, Zenden.
Referee: R Rosetti (Italy).Reuse content