LIVERPOOL: Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez claimed that Steven Gerrard repaid the club's supporters with an inspirational hat-trick as the European champions launched the defence of their title with a 3-0 win against Total Network Solutions at Anfield on Wednesday.
Gerrard, the Liverpool captain, faced the supporters for the first time since performing an astonishing U-turn on his future at the club last week by signing a new four-year contract and rejecting a £35 million move to Chelsea just days after claiming he wanted to leave Anfield.
Fans burned Gerrard shirts in the wake of his initial decision to leave, but the England midfielder was cheered by the home fans throughout the game as his hat-trick ensured that Liverpool left the Welsh champions with an impossible task in next Tuesday's first qualifying round second leg.
Liverpool, however, lost their way after two early goals from Gerrard had put them in charge of their first qualifying round, first leg tie against the Welsh champions who claimed a moral victory.
Gerrard completed his hat-trick after 89 minutes to add to his strikes in the eighth and 21st minutes.
For periods in the second half they were outpassed and out-paced by the Welsh minnows who never threatened an upset in front of a 44,000 crowd expecting a goal blitz.
Liverpool had four more clear scoring chances before halftime but failed to take any of them – and their finishing was even worse in the second period.
“It was really important for Steven to have a good game in front of the supporters and they now know that he will do his best for them,” said Benitez.
“Steven played well and scored three good goals.
“He is our captain and when he plays like that I have a lot of confidence for the season.
“I have always said that I wanted to build a team around him. He is a key player who gives us so many options, but it was important that he showed his commitment to the club.”
After scoring the first hat-trick of his professional career, Gerrard – who admitted last Firday when he signed his new contract that he needed to have better relations with Benitez – refused to accept that he had anything to prove following last week's stay-or-go saga.
“It was nice to get three goals, but I don't feel I have anything to prove,” said Gerrard.
“The fans know what I can do. I have nothing to prove to other people, only to myself. I want to keep learning and keep improving as a player and ultimately end up being more successful.
“The contract issue took longer to sort out than I wanted. I would liked to have signed it right after the Champions League Final, but I've signed it now and it's all behind me now.
“The fans have shown that they are behind me after everything that happened and I'm very happy about that. I'm very proud to be the captain of this team.
TNS manager Ken McKenna was forced to admit that Gerrard was simply too good for his inexperienced players to handle.
“Gerrard was unbelievable and he played against us just as he would against AC Milan,” he said.
“We were very close to a good result, but who knows about the second leg? Maybe we can do to Liverpool what they did to AC Milan in the Champions League Final!” – Agencies