Liverpool draw a blank

 

Liverpool carried their recent indifferent domestic form into the European arena last night delivering a timid performance against admittedly well disciplined opponents.

But, the Mersey-siders will at least take solace from the fact that Valencia missed countless opportunities to lay claim to the away goal which might just have settled the tie.

Even so, the Spaniards will harbour precious few fears about the second leg in a fortnight's time.

Confirmation that football lacks logic these days came shortly before kick-off with the announcement that Michael Owen had been omitted from the Liverpool starting line-up.

At the weekend, the club's joint manager Gerard Houllier, conceded that the youngster's swift march around an arduous learning curve had left him somewhat jaded.

Whilst the accepted cure for a problem which afflicts all young men is rest, his demotion to the substitutes' bench on an evening when his team was seeking to deliver not aesthetically pleasing football but goals, was most confusing.

Not that Liverpool were over concerned with events up-field early on. The belief was that Valencia would stick 10 men behind the ball, defend stoically and seek to launch counter attacks.

But, life is full of surprises and the sight of so many fleet-footed Spaniards sweeping forward with an almost callous disregard for their own safety did serve to ruffle Liverpool's plumage.

The game was dull and chance-less until the quarter hour when Karlheinz Riedle's header from a Steve Staunton corner was kicked off the line by Gabriel Popescu.

The Valencia goalkeeper Santiago Canizares is rightly famed for his indiscretions - dropped crosses and the like - which, presumably, explains why it was Liverpool who sought to belt the ball forwards into his penalty area whenever they could.

Even so, Valencia performed like a team which believed that patience would eventually be met with its reward and but for a smart, low save by David James midway through a passionless opening phase, Gaizka Mendieta's low shot would have given them the advantage.

As the minutes began to drift away Liverpool's always obvious sense of desperation began to manifest itself in a welcome return to more basic values.

By using brain rather than brawn they did, at last, threaten to punch holes in what was an admirably disciplined defence.

Paul Ince emerged from the most anonymous of personal performances to almost nudge his side ahead shortly after the halftime interval, but in stretching to reach Steve McManaman's intelligent cross from the left flank, he surrendered his balance and could do more than lift his shot over the bar.

Liverpool continued to flirt with disaster, however, and they were again indebted to James on 57 minutes when he scampered away from the sanctuary of his line to block a Claudio Lopez drive.

Afterwards, Valencia boss Claudio Ranieri said: "My side played very well, defended excellently and followed my instructions. I'm very happy with this result. I don't believe we are favourites now, Liverpool are too good a side."

Liverpool: James, McAteer, Staunton, McManaman, Fowler (Owen 73), Riedle, Heggem, Berger (Leonhardsen 76), Ince, Bjornebye, Carragher. Subs Not Used: Kvarme, Dundee, Friedel, Matteo, Thompson.

Valencia CF: Canizares, Djukic, Mendieta, Lopez, Illie (Lucdrelli 84), Bjorklund, Carboni, Roche (Soria 86), Popescu, Milla (Farinos 81), Angulo. Subs Not Used: Bartual, Garcia, Morigi, Tellez. Booked: Angulo.

Referee: Livio Bazzoli (Italy).