Cole inspires Liverpool to victory

LIVERPOOL - While businessmen battled for control of Liverpool off the field, the players were in total control on it, brushing aside a poor Rabotnicki side 2-0 in a Europa League third qualifying round tie on Thursday.

The Reds, whose future ownership is still far from decided, breezed through the second leg at Anfield to reach the playoff round of Europe's second-tier competition 4-0 on aggregate against their totally outplayed Macedonian visitors.

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David Ngog, who scored both goals in the first leg last week, wrapped matters up when he headed Liverpool in front after 22 minutes following a perfect pass from an inspired Joe Cole, who made a memorable competitive debut for his new team.

The five-times European champions doubled their lead from the penalty spot after 40 minutes when captain Steven Gerrard coolly wrong-footed Rabotnicki goalkeeper Martin Bogatinov after Fernando Lopes had hauled down Ngog.

Cole, who joined from Chelsea last month, played in a central role behind the strikers and almost scored seconds after half-time when his far post cross hit the bar.


The visitors only escaped a much heavier defeat because of some wayward Liverpool shooting, the only minor niggle for new coach Roy Hodgson in his first match in charge at Anfield.

"It was important tonight that we gave a disciplined and quality performance and we did that. It was good to keep a clean sheet as well," said Hodgson. "I'm sure the next round will be a bit tougher than this one proved to be."

The tie against the Macedonians was only the second time Liverpool have started their season in July.

The previous occasion was five years ago when they began the defence of the European Cup they won against AC Milan in Istanbul the previous May with a Champions League qualifying round tie against TNS of Wales due to a UEFA technical ruling.

The two matches reflect how far Liverpool have slipped since 2005 because they are now taking part in the Europa League qualifiers after finishing seventh in the Premier League last season and missing out on the Champions League altogether.

At least Thursday's win meant a positive end to a confusing day as the saga of Liverpool's future ownership brought claims and counter-claims involving China's government and Syrian financiers reported by media to be interested purchasers.

One thing was clear - every fan interviewed by Reuters at the ground was desperate to see the reign of unpopular American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett end as soon as possible.


Liverpool, English champions 18 times, urgently need a cash injection to take care of their 237 million pounds debt, build a new stadium and invest in the club which believes its rightful place is among Europe's elite, not the also-rans.

There has been some good news for Hodgson in the last few weeks with Gerrard and Fernando Torres pledging their futures to Liverpool, along with Cole's arrival on a free transfer and Serbia forward Milan Jovanovic signing from Standard Liege.

Cole and Jovanovic made excellent impressions on their Anfield debuts with the England midfielder prompting most of Liverpool's most dangerous attacks.

Hodgson fielded a stronger side than for last week's first leg but Torres, who has only just returned to training following Spain's World Cup triumph, was not in the squad.

Gerrard, looking refreshed after England's poor campaign at the finals in South Africa, gave a typically robust performance against visitors whose only real chance in the entire game came seconds before the end when they hit the post.

It might have been little more than a training match against inferior opposition but the 31,000 fans still gave the occasion an air of importance, underlying the appeal to potential buyers of one of England's finest sporting institutions.

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