Relief for Houllier as Kewell header advances Liverpool

Liverpool 1 Steaua Bucharest 0 Liverpool win 2-1 on agg
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Not without a scare or two, Liverpool have made it to the new year stages of a European competition that they know so well. Progress last night came at the expense of Romania's most decorated club and cast aside doubts about the manager, Gérard Houllier, for now.

But it was more a case of present-day nervousness than vintage Reds as Steaua Bucharest were eliminated 2-1 on aggregate. Harry Kewell's goal early in the second half did the trick and there would have been no need for the late flutters had Michael Owen possessed his pre-injury sharpness.

With the England striker squandering two openings, though, and substitute Emile Heskey another, Steaua were in the tie right up to the moment substitute Laurentie Dinita fired narrowly wide in the dying moments. Now the faltering Merseysiders have to hope that, as in the past, success over Romanian opposition is the cue for reaching a final.

Before Liverpool had the chance to think about cranking Anfield up for another of those famous European nights, they had good reason to look to the heavens with gratitude.

The away goal they gleaned in monsoon-like conditions in the Romanian capital should have been matched within three minutes. Their central defence was caught cold by a Falemi Ngassam Nana through ball that left Claudiu Raducanu with a clear run at goal. Chris Kirkland compounded the uncertainty with a moment's hesitation but his eventual advance was enough to pressure the striker into lifting his shot on to the net rather than into it.

What was all the more surprising was that this wastefulness came from the man who had scored twice to oust Southampton in the last round before equalising in the first leg of this tie.

It was not long before Liverpool were similarly culpable. Steven Gerrard, having escaped punishment for a poor tackle on his rival captain, Matei Radoi, exposed some statuesque defending by the away side with a curling free-kick that the unmarked Michael Owen headed over from eight yards.

Any hope that the early openness would spawn a classic was soon laid to rest. Liverpool's search for a first win in four games was to bring them only one more clear sight of goal in the first half. From that, the influential Gerrard powered his header straight at Vasili Khamutovski from Kewell's centre.

Dietmar Hamann's first start for six months had been designed to make Houllier's side more resilient but they continued to yield the better of the openings, Marian Aliuta dragging a left-foot shot narrowly wide from 25 yards.

Generally, though, it was mundane stuff, thankfully enlivened by events straight after half-time. Igor Biscan's insistence on playing his way out of danger almost cost Liverpool dear when Raducanu closed in near the corner of the six-yard box. The striker went to ground in the ensuing tangle and appeared to have good claims for a penalty.

Steaua's frustration was only increased by a breakthrough at the other end in the 49th minute. Liverpool's inspirational captain, Gerrard, who was behind all his team's best moves, hung up a high centre from near the byline and Kewell climbed well at the far post to score with a bouncing header across Khamutovski - his seventh goal of the season.

The skipper then had the keeper scrambling to push away his 30-yard free-kick, only for Raducanu to sound another warning with a shot sliced wide from close range following a corner. Owen, having turned wide from Kewell's low cross, should have secured Liverpool's passage 20 minutes from time but chipped wide with only Khamutovski to beat.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Kirkland; Diao, Biscan, Hyypia, Traoré; Diouf (Smicer, 69), Gerrard, Hamann, Kewell; Sinima-Pongollé (Heskey, 69), Owen (Murphy 88). Substitutes not used: Dudek, Riise, Le Tallec, Otsemobor.

Steaua Bucharest (3-4-3): Khamutovski; Radoi, Rachita, Mutica; Dumitru, Nana (Pitu 80), Aliuta (Paraschiv 59), Stoica; Oprita (Dinita 80), Raducana, Bostina. Substitutes: Martin, Curt, Neaga, Ogararu.

Referee: F Meyer (Germany).