Liverpool salvage honour in defeat

Football: Liverpool 2 Paris St-Germain 0 PSG win 3-2 on aggregate
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The Independent Online
And then there were none. British interest in European competition died with Liverpool's exit from the Cup-Winners' Cup at the semi-final stage last night, but the sophisticates of Paris St-Germain had to suffer a nerve-jangling second leg before advancing to defend their trophy against Barcelona in Rotterdam on 14 May.

The pride that Liverpool relinquished at the Parc des Princes was regained through goals by Robbie Fowler and Mark Wright. The latter's header, on a night when he took over the captaincy following the dropping of John Barnes, set up a frenzied finale. Even David James charged forward to join his colleagues as they awaited a stoppage-time corner kick into the Parisian penalty area.

After all the goalkeeper's recent woes it would have been one of the great Anfield stories if he had scored to force the additional half-hour. James duly met the ball with a towering header, only to see it sail high into the Kop. With it went Liverpool's final chance in more ways than one.

In every respect apart from a third goal, Liverpool were as impressive as they had been pathetic in Paris. Their manager, Roy Evans, promised they would seek to unsettle the French by establishing a "British" tempo. He also intimated that he would err on the side of adventure in his selection. He was as good as his word. Even so, the omission of Barnes, for the first time in a decade on Merseyside, was an unexpectedly bold step.

Without quite apeing Wimbledon in their more one-dimensional days, Liverpool were more direct and resorted to the long ball more often than they have probably done during the entire season. The policy was vindicated by an early goal, though the breakthrough could easily have gone PSG's way.

There were barely 100 seconds on their stopwatch when Wright's pass was intercepted by Jerome LeRoy. An incisive through ball picked out Patrice Loko, who was lurking unattended. His cross-shot defeated James' dive, but to audible relief it passed a foot wide.

The reprieve merely served to stoke the passions of the crowd, whose wall of sound was surely a factor when PSG caved in after only 11 minutes. Neil Ruddock, whose recall conspicuously enhanced the home side's fighting spirit, pumped the ball forward from a deep position, whereupon Stan Collymore and Bruno N'Gotty jostled for possession in the penalty area. Fowler, surging forward in support, was perfectly positioned to take his partner's pass. Without breaking stride, Liverpool's leading scorer buried an angled drive beyond Bernard Lama for his 31st goal of a season that must now end because of suspension.

A second goal before the interval might well have broken the French resistance. The unmarked Collymore had the best chance, after Patrik Berger's centre dipped over N'Gotty's head, but his first touch was poor and the eventual shot scuffed.

Lama, defending the Kop goal in the second half, may have expected to have more opportunity to underline the positive impression he left at this venue after helping France beat the Netherlands in a penalty shoot- out at Euro 96. One effort by Jason McAteer might have troubled him, but Benoit Cauet diverted it for a corner.

The PSG keeper's composure and positioning made a rasping free-kick by Collymore look like easy pickings, and for a time Liverpool found the visitors' packed defence as intransigent as a French fishermen's blockade. A lob by the Brazilian, Rai, which passed uncomfortably close to James' bar, seemed to herald a relatively smooth passage to the final.

Then, with 11 minutes remaining, Wright met Stig-Inge Bjornebye's corner to beat Lama with a thunderous header. But although the decibel levels reached a deafening peak, the holders clung on for the slenderest of aggregate victories.

Evans, rueful but defiant, said afterwards: "From an English point of view, we were the lowest of the low in Europe last year, criticised by everyone. But we've now reached a situation where our teams are expected to win trophies. It's a giant step."

In a parallel universe, James' attempt to emulate Peter Schmeichel's striking prowess was probably the prelude to a historic extra-time triumph. In the real world, as Evans said, reality was harsh indeed.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Jones; McAteer, Wright, Ruddock, Bjornebye; McManaman, Redknapp, Thomas, Berger (Kennedy, 69); Fowler, Collymore. Substitutes not used: R Jones, Babb, Carragher, Warner (gk).

Paris St-Germain (4-4-2): Lama; Faurnier, N'Gotty, Le Guen, Algerino; LeRoy, Guerin, Rai, Cauet; Loko (Pouget, 57), Leonardo (Pimentel, 84). Substitutes not used: Allou, Calenda, Fernandez (gk).

Referee: R Pedersen (Norway).

More football, results, page 28

Barcelona reached the Cup-Winners' Cup final by beating Fiorentina 2-0 in Florence for a 3-1 aggregate win. Their goals came from Fernando Couto and Josep Guardiola in the first half. Fiorentina had Luis Oliveira sent off in the second.