PARIS, March 11 – Eden Hazard crowned an enterprising display with a late goal to give Lille a 1-0 victory over beleaguered English giants Liverpool in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie on Thursday.
Liverpool, who are a disappointing sixth in the Premier League after losing 1-0 to Wigan on Monday, were short of fluency on an uneven playing surface in northern France and sank to defeat when Hazard’s 84th-minute free-kick drifted straight in.
The Belgian youngster had been a constant torment with his purposeful running and his goal, albeit fortuitous, puts his side in the driving seat prior to the return match at Anfield on March 18.
"I have confidence we can beat anyone on a good day at Anfield," said Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez.
"I would be worried if the players hadn’t worked as hard as they have. The fans will play a part, they will push and will be behind the team."
Benitez’s Lille counterpart Rudi Garcia praised his team.
"Everyone thought we were out when the draw was made. Now, although nothing has been decided, it’s a good result for us," he said.
"We have to score over there. The first leg should give us confidence and show us that we’re capable of competing with such a big team."
Lille have lost just twice at home all season and they began the game full of intent, with Yohan Cabaye testing Jose Reina inside the first minute.
The visitors eventually settled, though, and on 26 minutes Ryan Babel was thwarted by Lille goalkeeper Mickael Landreau after a neat one-two with Fernando Torres.
Liverpool ended the first half strongly and Landreau was twice called into action, palming away Steven Gerrard’s free-kick and then springing to his feet to claw away Torres’s header.
Hazard raised the temperature in the stadium shortly before the break with a menacing dribble and shot, while Babel was first to threaten in the second period when his fierce effort stung Landreau’s palms.
Lille counter-attacked sporadically, with Pierre-Alain Frau, Cabaye and substitute Stephane Dumont all threatening from distance, while Daniel Agger narrowly avoided diverting Florent Balmont’s cross into his own goal.
Torres picked up a yellow card for persistent dissent as Liverpool became rattled, before Hazard provided the breakthrough with an inswinging free-kick from wide on the left that missed everyone and crept inside the far post.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang volleyed against the outside of the post as Lille went close to extending their advantage, while Gerrard was denied by a convergence of home defenders after surging into the penalty area in injury time.
Elsewhere, a delightful curling finish from Bosnian playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic in the 67th minute earned Wolfsburg a 1-1 draw at Rubin Kazan in the battle of the reigning league champions from Germany and Russia.
Ruud van Nistelrooy scored his first home goal for new club Hamburg as they defeated Anderlecht 3-1, with Jonathan Legear’s superb free-kick on the stroke of half-time earning the visitors an away goal.
Sporting Lisbon secured a 0-0 draw at Atletico Madrid despite the 31st-minute dismissal of defender Leandro Grimi for two bookable offences and a straight red card for Tonel in the final minute.
The pick of Thursday’s four late matches sees Italian giants Juventus host Fulham, who eliminated defending champions Shakhtar Donetsk in the previous round.
Marseille visit Portuguese league leaders Benfica, Standard Liege travel to Panathinaikos and Valencia take on last season’s runners-up Werder Bremen.