Sublime Gerrard seals epic comeback

Liverpool 3 - Olympiakos 1
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The Independent Football

Mike Brearley once wrote a book called The Art of Captaincy whose title suggested that leadership came from deep, intuitive thought. On one of Anfield's great nights, which resembled a footballing Headingley 1981, Steven Gerrard proved how to lead with the heart, muscles and sweat.

Mike Brearley once wrote a book called The Art of Captaincy whose title suggested that leadership came from deep, intuitive thought. On one of Anfield's great nights, which resembled a footballing Headingley 1981, Steven Gerrard proved how to lead with the heart, muscles and sweat.

When his goal, struck from the edge of the area like a football in a cartoon, flew past Antonios Nikopolidis four minutes from the end of an extraordinary match, it sealed an astonishing turnaround. Liverpool, a goal down at half-time, needed to score three in 45 minutes to survive in the Champions' League and did so with style and grit.

It was a performance that might persuade Gerrard that Liverpool still have something to offer. It will also convince the Liverpool board of the enormous, awful cost of seeing him leave.

His was a display of leadership to compare with Roy Keane in Turin, dragging Manchester United into a European Cup final he would miss, or David Beckham running himself into exhaustion against the Greeks to take England to the last World Cup.

Gerrard said that whatever happened, Liverpool would show what the European Cup means on Merseyside and even had they lost, this would have been achieved. Olympiakos, who like their neighbours, Panathinaikos, failed to qualify with fewer points than Porto, might not have won in 24 Champions' League games outside Piraeus but they left Liverpool undone by something the Greeks would understand. A heroic display.

This was a match when Rafael Benitez also demonstrated the art of management. Two of Liverpool's three goals were scored by his substitutes. The first from Florent Sinama-Pongolle, the second from Neil Mellor, who smashed home a header by Antonio Nunez that Nikopolidis could only palm away and set up Gerrard's grandstand finish.

If Gerrard's display was filled with all the great earthy attributes of the English footballer, Rivaldo's swept like a dark shadow across the surface of the match. If Olympiakos were to win, you guessed the Brazilian would have to be the central figure.

It would have been hard for him to have done much more to score Olympiakos' first goal on English soil in six matches. It was his run, skating past two weak challenges on legs which are officially 32 years old but reckoned by many to be significantly more, that won the free-kick. It was his perfectly-honed left boot that swerved the ball through the wall and past a bemused and stationary Chris Kirkland.

It was for moments like these that he had been persuaded to abandon a luxuriant, painless life in Qatar and why Sam Allardyce thought him worth a significant slice of Bolton's wages bill. The Kop, which is usually a generous audience, was not in the mood to appreciate such slivers of beauty. Sometimes Anfield can be a buoyant stadium, but last night it was a loud, angry and intimidating arena. Rivaldo's play-acting ensured he would be howled off the pitch.

But from the moment his free-kick struck the net, until Sinama-Pongolle equalised, belief began to seep out of Liverpool shirts, founded on the knowledge they would now have to score three times to qualify. Before kick-off, Gerrard and Benitez had extolled the virtues of patience, insisting the match would not be "attack, attack, attack". From the moment Rivaldo struck, they had no other choice.

Michael Owen's one significant criticism of Gerard Houllier was that the Frenchman was poor in making tactical adjustments during a game. Benitez seems rather more flexible. At half time he removed Djimi Traore, pushed John Arne Riise to left back and introduced Sinama-Pongolle. Within two minutes, the young striker had levelled, clipping home a cross from Harry Kewell, who hitherto had threatened to be as wretchedly disappointing as he had been against Arsenal.

It restored the match to the frenetic balance it had before Rivaldo's intervention. Early on Liverpool had pummelled a Greek defence that had previously conceded a mere two goals in this season's Champions' League. Having talked the talk on Tuesday, Gerrard had to lead from the front.

He forced the first of Liverpool's eight first-half corners after precisely a dozen seconds and with each set-piece it seemed they must break through. Milan Baros' header crossed the line, only to be ruled out for a foul. Xabi Alonso's free-kick was touched on to the post by his captain. Gerrard was everywhere; heading away corners in the manner of Alan Shearer, another icon who has so far won much less than his due.

Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Kirkland; Finnan (Josemi, 85), Carragher, Hyypia, Traore (Sinama-Pongolle, h-t); Nunez, Alonso, Gerrard, Riise; Kewell; Baros (Mellor, 78). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Henchoz, Diao, Warnock.

Olympiakos (4-4-2): Nikopolidis; Pantos, Anatolakis, Schurrer, Venetidis (Maric, 84); Georgiadis (Rezic, 70), Kafes, Stoltidis, Djordjevic; Rivaldo, Giovanni (Okkas, 87). Substitutes not used: Giannou, Kouloucheris, Castillo, Vallas.

Referee: M Gonzalez (Spain).

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