Toulouse 0 Liverpool 1: Voronin thunderbolt rewards Liverpool's labours in the sun
Liverpool were forced to sweat yesterday; it was hard not to with the temperature in this stadium by the banks of the Garonne hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They otherwise embarked on the long road to Moscow in May, and an eighth European Cup final, with relative comfort.
A magnificent goal from Andriy Voronin shortly before half-time won this tie, the first leg of the third and final qualifying round for the Champions League. It should be sufficient cushion for the second leg at Anfield in 12 days' time. While Johan Elmander gave Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia a thorough work-out that underlined his Premier League ambitions, Toulouse were otherwise short of menace.
With no bookings, and no injuries ahead of Sunday's visit of Chelsea, Rafa Benitez, the Liverpool manager, could thus reflect on a job well done, especially after shaking up his team selection. The manager soothed a few egos by including the trio of players left on Merseyside when Liverpool opened their Premier League campaign at Villa Park on Saturday. He also rested key players ahead of the Chelsea game, with John Arne Riise, Daniel Agger, Dirk Kuyt and Fernando Torres in the dug-out as the match kicked off.
That meant seven changes from the team who beat Villa, and five survivors from the starting XI who lost last season's European Cup final to Milan. Peter Crouch led the line, with Voronin playing off him and Ryan Babel starting on the right. Yossi Benayoun made his Liverpool debut on the left flank. Benayoun and Babel later switched, Babel returning to the right only when the Israeli was withdrawn, departing notably unenthusiastically, to be replaced by Riise near the hour mark.
It was an attacking XI for an away tie in Europe, but Benitez knows better than most that in the modern game a goalless draw is no longer regarded as a fine result when travelling, an away goal is the aim.
It did not take the visitors long to threaten that precious strike, winning a free-kick in a dangerous position at the edge of the Toulouse box. Steven Gerrard, fresh from his late winner from a similar position against Villa, stepped up but this time curled his shot wide.
Thereafter Liverpool controlled the half comfortably enough, but struggled to create clear chances against a home side who strung five across midfield in a clear demonstration of their justified inferiority complex. The Toulouse goalkeeper Nicolas Douchez was largely untroubled, with Gerrard shooting high and wide when set up by a square pass from Babel after 28 minutes.
For their part, the French team had only mustered a 19th-minute long-range shot from Elmander, which dribbled through to Jose Reina following a deflection. Otherwise they found Carragher eager to show Steve McClaren what England will be missing.
The heat contributed to the slow tempo as much as Toulouse's caution. It was an afternoon for lying on a sunlounger with a cold beer – and the adjacent municipal swimming pool looked a far more attractive option than attending a football match. The empty seats in the Liverpool segment suggested some visiting fans agreed, though more probably Reds supporters were saving their money for the group stages.
Liverpool's prospects of reaching that land of hype and money were dramatically, and unexpectedly, enhanced two minutes from the interval as Voronin shattered the increasingly soporific tone of the proceedings with a stunning goal. Crouch flicked on Steve Finnan's lofted pass, the Ukrainian took the ball on his chest, let it bounce, then lashed a 25-yard shot inside Douchez's left-hand post.
Given the competition for places at Anfield, Voronin will be delighted at making such an impressive early impact, especially as he is a free transfer signing, from Bayer Leverkusen. Most managers find it easier to leave out a player who cost nothing rather than the one who cost £20m-plus.
Toulouse sought an instant response but Achille Emana's acrobatic overhead kick whistled wide of Reina's goal. They returned after the break with a necessarily more offensive approach but Liverpool remained the likelier scorers. Crouch was foiled by Douchez, Gerrard shot over.
Finally, after a full hour, Reina was exercised. Gilles Sirieix whipped over a cross from the left and Elmander got ahead of Hyypia only to steer the ball into the goalkeeper's arms.
Six minutes later the Swede beat Carragher to Emana's cross, but his header looped over.
By then Gerrard had departed, having received a kick on a toe for which he was substituted as a precaution and also to rest ahead of his forthcoming battle with Frank Lampard on Sunday. With two wins behind them, his team meet Chelsea in good heart.
Toulouse (4-1-4-1): Douchez; Ebondo (Moussa Sissoko, 83), Cetto, Fofana, Mathieu; Dieuze; Cesar (Gignac, 68), Sirieix, Emana, Bergougnoux (Mansare, h-t); Elmander. Substitutes not used: Riou (gk), Alves, Jonsson, Batlles,
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Arbeloa; Babel, Gerrard (Mohamed Sissoko, 64), Mascherano, Benayoun (Riise, 58); Voronin (Torres, 77), Crouch. Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Agger, Alonso, Kuyt.
Referee: K Vassaras (Greece).