It was just as soporific as everybody expected it to be, but then that was how Liverpool wanted it, a 1-0 win seeing them past PSV Eindhoven and into the semi-finals of the Champions League.
With Liverpool 3-0 up from the first leg, this had the sense of a tedious obligation, like the wedding of a distant relative. It was a night for responsibility, for getting the job done, for making sure there was not some dreadful humiliating incident by the buffet.
Thank goodness then for the unexpected guest. The largest cheer of the first half was for the introduction of Robbie Fowler after Craig Bellamy had tweaked knee ligaments. As he fights for an extension to his contract, the thought occurred that he would be just the sort of jack-the-lad to liven up the dullest occasion, but that was the Fowler of old. When Patrick Kluivert arrived midway through the second half, Anfield was like a rest home for ageing number 9s.
Rafa Benitez had spoken before the game of the need, when chasing leads, of scoring an early goal to unsettle the opposition. It almost came after three minutes as Phillip Cocu crossed for an unmarked Jefferson Farfan. The Peruvian’s header from six yards out, though, was too close to Pepe Reina. For PSV, that, really, was it.
The dreadful gaffe, in the end, came not from Liverpool, but from Dirk Marcellis, PSV’s debutant right-back, who was, somewhat unluckily, sent off 19 minutes after half-time for a not particularly vicious lunge at Bolo Zenden. Three minutes later, Liverpool had the lead. Peter Crouch’s initial flick from John Arne Riise’s cross was saved by Gomes, but when Fowler returned the ball to the middle, Crouch swept home his fifth goal in his last four games.
After the thunderous rhapsodies of the night before, it was all rather tame, but it is hardly Liverpool’s fault they did the job in the first leg. They become the third English side in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, where they will meet Chelsea. Manchester United take on AC Milan after they won 2-0 away at Bayern Munich for a 4-2 aggregate victory.
■Tottenham Hotspur captain Ledley King looks set to be recalled prematurely after a four-month injury lay-off when England’s only remaining team in this season’s Uefa Cup face the holders, Sevilla, in tonight’s quarter-final second leg, writes Andrew Warshaw.
Martin Jol’s team need to overturn a 2-1 deficit but face a defensive crisis with four regulars injured and a fifth, Ricardo Rocha, cup-tied against the Spaniards. Sevilla thrashed Middlesbrough 4-0 in last season’s final and lie second in La Primera Liga, a point behind Barcelona, and have not lost an away game in Europe for more than a year. Jol, unsurprisingly, was in sombre mood as he assessed his team’s chances in their most important fixture of the season.
“It’s the worst situation defensively at the worst possible time but I can’t do anything about it,” he said. “Normally I wouldn’t have included Ledley in the squad. I would have preferred to wait a bit longer.”
Despite the magnitude of the occasion, Jol appears to have little choice but to gamble on bringing back King, who has not played since Boxing Day because of foot and knee injuries. “Sevilla was always the target for him and he says he’s ready to go,” said Jol. “Plus, he’s a very positive influence in the dressing room.”
Tottenham might also be forced into including untried 20-year-old full-back Philip Ifill, who has played just one League Cup game all season. Up front for Sevilla will be Freddy Kanouté who spent two terms at White Hart Lane and has scored 24 goals this season, including a penalty in the first leg. “They are maybe the team of the year but I don’t want to worry about that,” said Jol. “We feel this is our moment, whoever plays.”
■England have secured arguably the most glamorous of first opponents at the new Wembley Stadium. Steve McClaren’s team will play five-time world champions Brazil on June 1, the Football Association announced. The Brazil friendly will also provide a test for England prior to their 2008 European Championship qualifier in Estonia five days later. The FA also confirmed that from next year the semi-finals as well as the final of the FA Cup will be played at Wembley.
Lawrie Sanchez, Northern Ireland’s manager, was appointed caretaker boss of Fulham until the end of the season following the sacking of Chris Coleman late on Tuesday. The Irish Football Association said it was considering long-term options as a result, even though Sanchez intends to see out his contract with Northern Ireland, which ends after the Euro 2008 campaign.
Howard Wells, IFA chief executive, said: ‘‘Lawrie wants to make it absolutely clear he remains committed to Northern Ireland.
‘‘We do not have any contingency plans in place but any self-respecting organisation is going to be looking at what may or may not happen. We are thinking about our options were Lawrie to stay or go.”
Another manager appointed as caretaker until the end of the season was Nigel Worthington, who takes over at Leicester City following the dismissal of Rob Kelly. Worthington, the former Norwich manager, has five games to make his mark. Leicester’s new owner and chairman Milan Mandaric sacked Kelly following a 3-0 defeat at Plymouth that left the club without a win in eight games.
Andy Ritchie has been named as the new manager of League One side Huddersfield. Ritchie, who was sacked by Barnsley last November, takes over from Peter Jackson who was dismissed in March after a poor run of results.