Wednesday, February 20, 2008

LiverpooL 2 - 0 Inter Milan

Liverpool rediscovered their pride and gave themselves a wonderful chance of saving their Champions League lives with a 2-0 win over Inter Milan.

Hounded and hammered from all quarters after three months of disappointing form, Liverpool grabbed two goals in the final five minutes in the first leg of their last 16 tie against the Italian giants.

They inflicted only the second defeat of the season on the Serie A leaders, with late goals from Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard.

Inter fought and defended magnificently for an hour after defender Marco Materazzi was sent off on his return to Merseyside, having been an Everton player eight years ago.

It was the slice of fortune Liverpool desperately needed. They dominated from then on and produced a victory that will also lift the intense pressure on boss Rafael Benitez.

Liverpool will go to the San Siro on March 11 with genuine hope that they can reach their 12th European Cup quarter-finals.

Inter, 11 points clear at the top of Serie A, were at their strongest. A side with seven South Americans and only one Italian, former Everton centre-back Materazzi.

Liverpool made five changes from the one humbled by Barnsley in the FA Cup on Saturday, with Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Jose Reina Arvalo Arbeloa and Mascherano - returning.

But they faced a massive task, the Italian club had lost only one game in 33 all season to Fenerbahce in the Champions League group stages.

Three defeats in their previous 45 away games in all competitions told its own story.

England boss Fabio Capello was here to witness a side of true class, on current form one of the best in the world, while Liverpool were coming off the back of their worst defeat of the campaign.

The Kop were at full throttle as the teams appeared, full of faith if not total belief that Liverpool could match the Nerazzurri, who are heading for their third title on the trot.

But the use of Gerrard in support of Torres, with Kuyt wide, gave the Anfield skipper the platform for a memorable performances.

Liverpool could easily have had a penalty inside two minutes when Jamie Carragher - playing his 99th European game - saw a shot hit the outstretched hand of Brazilian Maicon.

Carragher berated Belgian referee Frank de Bleeckere all the way back up field. Cristian Chivu was booked for tripping Gerrard in full flow, then Materazzi was cautioned for a foul on Torres, while Ryan Babel and Sami Hyypia both had efforts saved.

Liverpool produced as good an opening spell as they have managed in recent times -measured, thoughtful and with Mascherano outstanding.

The angled running of Torres was stretching Inter at the back, and Materazzi's next foul on the Spaniard on 30 minutes produced a second yellow followed by a red, to the horror of the big centre-back and delight of the Kop who reminded him of his Everton past all the way down the tunnel.

Contact, though, was minimal if there was any at all and the Italian's reputation for trouble may have influenced the decision.

Chivu dropped into central defence and Inter set themselves for a siege.

But there were few chances. One Gerrard surge and cross was deflected away from Kuyt, who saw another effort held by Julio Cesar.

In the second period Inter had the Kop at their backs, baying for a breakthrough.

Then a familiar figure emerged from the Inter bench, former Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira came on for striker Julio Cruz, to reinforce the barricades.

But twice in two minutes Liverpool should have scored.

First Torres burst onto a rebound off Kuyt and broke clear, only to see his shot touched wide by Cesar. Then Hyypia rose to head over a Kuyt cross.

On 60 minutes Vieira clearly handed a Gerrard cross inside the box, but neither referee nor assistant saw it. To Liverpool's horror all they got was a corner.

Torres drove another effort inches wide before Peter Crouch was ushered into the fray in place of Lucas in the 64th minute. Seven minutes later it was Jermaine Pennant's turn in place of Ryan Babel.

The game, though was on a knife edge. Inter were looking for the break-out as Liverpool intensified their pressure. Crouch fired wide from 10 yards, the chances coming and the time ticking away.

In the 75th minute the excellent Ivan Cordoba was carried off after falling awkwardly, Nicolas Burdisso coming on. Crouch had another effort blocked and Steve Finnan blasted the rebound high into the Kop.

But then the breakthrough came. With six minutes left Pennant fired a cross back into a packed box and it flew on to Kuyt on the left, who saw his right-foot shot flick off Maicon and high past Cesar and Anfield erupted.

And a minute from time Gerrard took possession on the far right corner of the box and fired the second home in off the far post. Cue more delirium, and the cloud lifted from Anfield.

Gerrard: Job Only Half Done

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard was left delighted with his team’s performance against Inter Milan, but warned that the job was only half completed ahead of the second leg at the San Siro.

Inter had defender Marco Materazzi sent off after just half an hour and defended resolutely until two late strikes from Kuyt and Gerrard sealed a 2-0 win.

“It was a big night and a big win, but it means nothing if we don’t finish the job in the second leg, but I’m confident we’ll do it.”

The sending off of Materazzi was central in the game, but Gerrard felt the referee had little choice. “I’m not surprised no. They were two bookable offences so he deserved to go” Gerrard said.

“The win is for Rafa, the fans, for everybody connected with the club. It’s a big win for everyone.”

Striker Dirk Kuyt believed that the Red’s patience was the key to victory.

“We kept patient and it is a big win for us. But we still have a second game to go” the Dutchman added.

Kuyt Glad Gerrard Went For The Jugular

Dirk Kuyt is glad his captain Steven Gerrard ignored his advice to protect what they had last night after Liverpool broke the deadlock late on against Inter Milan. Gerrard wanted to double the Reds' advantage - and did so with a possibly decisive second goal at Anfield.

Dirk Kuyt scored the crucial breakthrough goal for Liverpool in the 85th minute of their Champions League home leg against ten-man Internazionale on Tuesday - then tried to persuade Steven Gerrard not to press forward in search of a second goal but to protect their lead.

The Dutchman revealed his cautious approach to after the match, which Liverpool won 2-0 because Gerrard ignored his advice and added a last-gasp second goal.

The Serie A leaders had kept Liverpool at bay with ten-man for almost an hour after Marco Materazzi had been red-carded, and Kuyt urged skipper Gerrard to protect their slender lead.

"It was funny because I said to Stevie that maybe we have to keep hold of the ball and keep the clean sheet but he said we want to get another goal and he was right," said Kuyt. "He got a great goal and 2-0 is a great result, though we have one game to go in Milan, so it will be a tough night again."

Victory against the team hailed as the best in Europe this season was the perfect tonic for Liverpool after they were dumped out of the FA Cup by Championship (level two) Barnsley at the weekend. "I think that's the magic of football," said Kuyt. "You lose three days ago against Barnsley, where everybody is expecting you to beat them easily, and then tonight you see a whole different team but with a lot of the same players.

"I'm happy to score but the most important thing is that we won and beat Inter in the first match, though we still have a game to play so we'll keep focused," he added.

"We didn't play well in the last few matches but we know how we have to play in the big games, especially in the Champions League, and we used that. All the players worked really hard as a team and we had confidence in ourselves because we know we have a lot of quality. I think we showed that tonight."

Intriguingly, the only time Liverpool have ever lost a two-goal first-leg lead in European competition was, by coincidence, against Inter in the 1964/65 European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-final, a tie that was shrouded in controversy after dubious refereeing decisions in the second leg appeared to favour Inter.

However, when Kuyt, 27, was told of Inter's 4-3 aggregate win more than 40 years ago, he replied: "We just want to keep looking forward and not too much in the past."