LIVERPOOL, England (AP) - Steven Gerrard began Liverpool's defence of its Champions League title with three goals on Wednesday as Rafa Benitez' team strolled to a 3-0 victory over Welsh champion Total Network Solutions.
Three saves by TNS goalkeeper Gerard Doherty kept Liverpool to a 2-0 halftime lead and should ease any worries by Benitez about next week's second leg.
Gerrard, whose headed goal sparked Liverpool's rally from a 3-0 deficit against AC Milan in Istanbul seven weeks ago, scored in the eighth and 21st minutes before 44,760 fans at Anfield.
He added the third with a minute to go with a low, left-footed strike.
Assuming there are no slipups in the second leg, it looks like Liverpool will continue its defense against Lithuania's Kaunas.
The second qualifying round pairings were already known and Kaunas scored a 4-2 victory at HB Torshavn of the Faeroe Islands with the home leg still to come.
Other results were FC Haka (Finland) 1, Pyunik (Armenia) 0;
F91 Dudelange (Luxembourg) 0, Zrinjski (Bosnia Herzegovina) 1;
Glentoran (Northern Ireland) 1, Shelbourne (Ireland) 2;
Gorica (Slovenia) 2, KF Tirana (Albania) 0.
Despite being the defending champion, Liverpool was forced into the qualifying rounds because of its fifth-place finish in the Premier League last season.
With only the top four qualifying directly for the competition, UEFA granted Liverpool an exemption, allowing to enter through the qualifying phase.
At one stage two weeks ago, it looked as if Gerrard would be playing for another club.
Talks with the club over a new contract broke down and Liverpool turned down a transfer bid from Premier League champion Chelsea.
"Maybe it wasn't handled very well but I signed a new contract and it was a relief to get it out of the way,'' the Liverpool captain said.
"The squad's improving and we will get better. The manager was very disappointed with our league position last season and so were the players.
That's why he has brought some more players. We want to win the league title. Hopefully it will be this year.''
Benitez saluted his captain's performance."He scored three goals. He played well.
He is our captain and we always said we wanted to build a team around him,'' said the Liverpool manager, who believed his team could easily have won by a much bigger margin.
"We shot many times, we crossed many times but, at the end, (TNS) were well organized and it was difficult to find space. Their goalkeeper made lots of saves.''
Gerrard's early goals squelched TNS' hopes of a major upset, leaving the rest of the first qualifying round game effectively as another celebration of Liverpool's penalty shootout victory over Milan in the final.
TNS had just one shot at goal which was easily saved by Jose Reina on his debut.
Before kickoff, the players and fans observed a moment of silence for the victims of last Thursday's London subway and bus bombings, which killed 52 and injured more than 700.
Gerrard's first came in the eighth minute when John Arne Riise cut in from the left and crossed low into the middle. Fernando Morientes teed it up for the captain to side foot home from 10 meters.
But he hit the target again in the 21st minute when TNS defender Steve Evans failed to make enough contact with the ball with a back pass and Gerrard got free to lob the ball over the keeper.
A mistake by Alonso could have been costly when he carelessly gave the ball to Michael Wilde 25 meters from goal, but the TNS striker shot straight at goalkeeper Reina.
Then Doherty rescued his team with three first-half saves, blocking a diving header from Anthony Le Tallec, thwarting a close-range prod from Morientes and pushing away a 25-meter shot from Steve Finnan in first-half injury time.
Morientes appeared to score from a cross by substitute Djibril Cisse but the ball already had gone out of play.
But Gerrard ended a frustrating second half for Liverpool when he collected the ball 25 meters out and ran into a shooting position before beating Doherty from just inside the area. - AP