Fri, Aug 11, 2006 - Page 22 News List

Liverpool leaves it late to scrape win

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE The Reds were a goal down before rallying to earn a 2-1 victory, while AC Milan, Ajax and CSKA Moscow were among other sides to win

AFP , PARIS

Liverpool's Peter Crouch, left, and Maccabi Haifa's Rafael Olarra tussle during their Champions League qualifying match at Anfield, Liverpool, on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AFP

Liverpool and AC Milan scraped narrow wins to stay on course for the group stage of the Champions League on Wednesday on a night of heartache for the minnows.

Liverpool needed an 88th minute winner from new signing Mark Gonzalez to hand them a 2-1 victory over Maccabi Haifa, whose home city is at the center of the bloody Middle East conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

Milan meanwhile, who were only grudgingly granted a place in the competition last week by UEFA after initially being kicked out because of Italy's corruption scandal, were narrow 1-0 winners over Red Star Belgrade.

Veteran striker Filippo Inzaghi -- with a goal on his birthday -- was the hero for the 2003 champions at the San Siro, giving Carlo Ancelotti's side a slender advantage heading into the second leg.

Dutch giants Ajax also edged nearer to the next round with a hard-fought 2-1 victory away to Denmark's FC Copenhagen.

Eastern European teams also fared well, with Levksi Sofia poised to become the first Bulgarian side ever to reach the group stages after their 2-0 win at home to Italian minnows Chievo.

Sofia could well be joined in the next round by two Russian clubs -- CSKA Moscow, 3-0 winners at home to Ruzomberok of Slovakia, and Spartak Moscow, who will now be favorites to progress against Slovan Liberec after a 0-0 draw away to the Czech club.

But there was disappointment for Scottish hopefuls Hearts, who conceded two goals in the final five minutes to go down 2-1 at home to experienced Greek side AEK Athens.

Hearts, aiming to become the first side from Scotland other than Rangers or Celtic to reach the group stages, had taken the lead through Saulius Mikoliunas' second-half goal at Murrayfield.

But a Pantelis Kapetanos equalizer in the final minute was followed by a deflected shot from Nikolaos Liberopoulos deep into injury time to the bitter disappointment of the home side.

Hearts defeat was typical of a disappointing night for some of the less fashionable clubs dreaming of Champions League glory.

Nowhere was this more evident than at Anfield, where Haifa had the measure of Liverpool for long periods only to suffer a shattering late defeat.

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez could not hide his relief after Gonzalez' goal two minutes from time handed his a narrow victory after the Reds had equalized through Craig Bellamy following a Gustavo Boccoli strike for Haifa.

"We had to use the pace of Gonzalez," Benitez said afterwards, explaining his decision to throw on the winger, who has waited 12 months for his Liverpool debut thanks to work permit and injury woes.

"It was a good situation for us, to see him score a goal in his first five minutes," Benitez said.

He praised the efforts of Liverpool's opponents.

"We knew that it would be a difficult game. You could see that they had good quality, and could counter attack," Benitez said. "We were controlling, but we were not creating the chances. The second half was better."

Haifa manager Roni Levy, meanwhile, was left ruing the late goal.

"It is a real disappointment," he said. "It is a big difference between 1-1 and 2-1. But still, maybe we have a chance of a dream in the second game."

But Hearts boss Valdas Ivanauskas was unable to take defeat to AEK Athens on the chin, raging at Danish official Nicolai Vollquartz's decision to red card Bruno Aguiar at a time when the Scots led 1-0 and were pressing for a second goal.

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