Supporters reveal a Euro-sceptic tendency

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The Independent Football

The swathes of empty seats at the Anfield Road End last night bore a warning note as red as their colour. This may have been Liverpool's long-awaited return to the front rank of European football but, as far as their supporters were concerned, it was a lot less important than playing Aston Villa in the Premiership.

That was the stark conclusion to be drawn from a crowd several thousand below the 44,102 Villa drew to Anfield on Saturday. It was not as if television could be blamed.

Live coverage was available, but only at a price and to a limited audience. The unfamiliar, and thus unglamorous nature of the opposition was a factor, as were high ticket prices, but the simple truth was that this fixture, the opening one of six in the first stage of the Champions' League, had not stirred the Merseyside imagination as much as had been anticipated.

Manchester United fans, who still fill their 67,000-seat Old Trafford theatre for every European match, even those against obscure East European opponents, will hear the news and mock. In their boardroom, however, there will be concern. Manchester United and Liverpool are the only English members of G14, the pan-European big-club pressure group which has a European Super League as its ultimate aim. If Liverpool cannot lure a full house through the Shankly gates for a match like last night what chance is there of doing so on a weekly basis.

Nor is the problem restricted to Anfield. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Milan have also struggled to put bums on seats in this competition's league stages. In Spain and Italy this has re-opened the debate on the structure of the Champions' League. But while all agree there are too many meaningless matches none is prepared to decline the financial advantages of a guaranteed block of fixtures.

Until last night discussion of the issue had been restricted to the Continent for England appeared immune to such spectator apathy. Whether the visitors were Barcelona or Sturm Graz the turnstiles clicked without pause. At least they had done at Highbury, Elland Road, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford.

Liverpool supporters may respond by arguing their discernment proves they, not United, are the genuine members of Europe's aristocracy. Like the followers of Real Madrid and Juventus they prefer to husband their resources until the serious challenges arrive.

It took 127 seconds last night for anyone holding such a view to be rudely disbused. Boavista's Brazilian forward line made Liverpool's defence look so ponderous they could have been two-up by the time Michael Owen evaded the grappling attentions of Paulo Turra to level.

That Robbie Fowler was left on the bench in such circumstances seemed at best strange, at worst bloody-minded. Owen's goal was such a rare example of his combining with Emile Heskey to useful effect it was clear from the acclaim Fowler received every time he warmed up the Liverpudlian was not alone in wondering why he had again been omitted when it mattered.

The supporters may have been out in greater force to see the Villa but Gérard Houllier's decision to rest Owen at the weekend, then play him last night, made it clear where his priorities lie.

The accountants would agree with his judgement for a good run in the Champions' League pays many bills. But though Liverpool have an illustrious European tradition to uphold Manchester United's domination of the domestic championship is a festering sore on Merseyside. Since Liverpool last led the English game in 1990 United have lifted seven Premiership titles.

In expressing a preference for Europe has Houllier decided toppling United is too big a task? Giants can be overcome. That was the subtext of Boavista's unexpected success in Portugal last year. Unrated they may be but, having done the "impossible" at home, it was hardly surprising to see them come to Anfield with a similar lack of fear.

Aside from their irritating, and unworthy, time-wasting they were attractive to watch. Technically skilled, bright and inventive they provided an early indication for Liverpool of the strength in depth at this level of the modern European game. Those stay-away fans should not put too much emphasis on waiting for the big games of Spring. Many more matches like last night and their patience will be in vain.