If Liverpool manage to reach in the Uefa Cup final in Seville in May, they will look back on this almost miraculous victory as perhaps the turning point of their struggling season.
Outplayed for much of this fourth-round first leg, the Premiership side still ended up on the brink of the quarter-finals thanks to their captain, Sami Hyypia, stealing in to grab the goal which left their manager, Gérard Houllier, much relieved on his return to his homeland.
Liverpool's first-half display had been dire as they were comprehensively out-thought by Guy Roux's neat and nimble side. But the French did not take their chances and paid the penalty, with the visitors surviving thanks to some composed defending by Hyypia and his team-mates.
The problems were further forward. Steven Gerrard, suspended for domestic games still but eligible to play in Europe, was out-passed and outplayed in midfield. Two other England players, the strikers Michael Owen and Emile Heskey, were not at their best.
Owen almost got on the end of long balls, both from Gerrard, twice in the early stages, while Heskey had what looked an even better chance when Gerrard's low pass took him goalside of the defender Jean-Alain Boumsong, who recovered to shrug aside the big striker. But, apart from those efforts, most of the first half was played in Liverpool's half.
A rash challenge by Gerrard, just outside the penalty area on Auxerre's captain Yann Lachuer, led to a quick free-kick and a 20-yard shot from Benjani Mwaruwari, which cleared Jerzy Dudek's crossbar. Then only a finely timed covering tackle on Khalilou Fadiga, after he had slipped past Jamie Carragher, stopped Auxerre taking the lead after 19 minutes.
The winger Lionel Mathis, twice, almost put Auxerre ahead as Liverpool began to struggle to compete. Auxerre found gaps, with the two Senegal World Cup colleagues of El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao – Fadiga and Amdy Faye – threading passes through the red ranks and by-passing Danny Murphy and Gerrard.
In the midst of this impressive Auxerre pressure, Owen looked anything but full throttle, seemingly uneasy with the soft, spongy pitch – with another hamstring injury perhaps just an uncertain stretch away on such a surface.
Hyypia was fortunate to escape unpunished when he threw himself in the way of a fierce drive from his fellow Finn, Teemu Tainio, the ball seeming to strike his arm inside the penalty area after 40 minutes.
Liverpool were reduced to chasing shadows, with Auxerre – quick, clever and mobile – pulling the visitors all over the park. The home goalkeeper, Fabien Cool, who had still not had a shot to save at this stage, was a total spectator for long periods as Mathis took on players at will on the flanks.
When play did swing to the other end, Cool saved at Heskey's feet and Owen headed over, but Mathis saw an angled shot flash wide as Auxerre, without the suspended French international striker Djibril Cissé, hit back again.
Diouf was booked after 68 minutes for a foul on Tainio, and before the free-kick Liverpool took off Stéphane Henchoz, moved Djimi Traoré to centre-back and John Arne Riise to left-back, with Diao coming on in midfield. It prompted Liverpool's best spell as Auxerre began to run out of steam.
Cool was forced to make a save from Murphy's free-kick and then saw a corner from the same player clip his near post before Liverpool stunned the crowd by taking the lead in the 73rd minute.
Owen, Diao and Murphy combined to set up Hyypia, still in the area after a corner, to fire left-footed into the corner of the net. That stung Auxerre, and only a stunning save from Dudek, playing the 50th European game of his career, kept out Mwaruwari from six yards.
A minute from the end Tainio somehow managed to fire wide from eight yards after Liverpool failed to clear a right-wing cross, and that summed up the French side's night. Houllier said: "I felt we could have played some better football at times – but we had a plan and the boys showed a lot of discipline, team spirit and character."
Auxerre: Cool, Radet, Jaures, Boumsong, Mexes, Faye, Lachuer, Tainio, Fadiga, Mathis, Mwaruwari. Substitutes not used: Chabert (gk), Grichting, Marin, Gonzales, Doumbe, Sirieix, Akale.
Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Henchoz (Diao, 69), Hyypia, Traoré, Diouf, Murphy, Gerrard, Riise, Owen (Baros, 90), Heskey. Substitutes not used: Arphexad (gk), Babbel, Hamann, Biscan, Cheyrou.
Referee: M De Santis (Italy).
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