Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Aurelio
Hey, it’s a win! And it doesn’t matter one bit! Luck still laughs at the club, even though their exit from the Champions League is their own fault, down to two goals conceded in injury time to Lyon. Had Liverpool held on to the draw at Anfield and the win in France, they’d be through to the group stages now.
Today saw 30 very good minutes, including an early Ngog goal (his fifth in 11 games), 30 mediocre minutes, and then 30 dire minutes, where Debrecen almost equalized with the last kick of the game. I hate this season so much, and I’m sure saying that will find a way to make it somehow worse.
It didn’t take long for Liverpool to find its way past a flat-footed Debrecen. Pushing forward from the opening whistle and having won an early corner, Carragher met Aurelio’s ball in at the back post, and Ngog was able to redirect past Poleksic. Just what Liverpool needed, and they’d assuredly build upon it. Or not. I don't know why I've any optimism left.
On the whole, Liverpool were more patient after the opener, which is sure to annoy given how the team needs a confidence boost. The team clearly expected Debrecen to come out of their shell when a goal behind, but no such luck. 10 men in white remained camped in their own half hoping to hit on the counter, and like against lower-league sides at Anfield (before this season, mind you), Liverpool had to find its way past a parked bus.
The strange thing is that all off Liverpool’s early chances came from set plays. And most of them were short corners or free kicks to get the defense moving, which we don't often see. The two best opportunities following Ngog’s goal fell to Kuyt from Gerrard and Aurelio crosses in the 11th and 16th; the Dutchman just missed contact with the first and was embarrassingly wrong-footed by the second when the ball made its way through the box only to nutmeg him for a goal kick.
It seemed fairly clear that the Liverpool players understood the 30th minute PA announcement of Fiorentina’s goal. Maybe the home side simply grew in confidence having not conceded a second and limited Liverpool’s opportunities when they were finally able to string two passes together. But it looked more likely that Liverpool grew a bit disillusioned and took the foot off the gas.
Rudolf, a lone striker with top scorer Coulibaly on the bench, had a couple of chances, making poor contact with a free header between Johnson and Carragher and mishitting a shot from that top of the box which Carra blocked. But even considering Liverpool’s oft-noted defensive liabilities, the home side rarely looked like scoring. Liverpool continued to have the best chances for a second, with Debrecen’s keeper twice saving Ngog shots, including a lovely snapped effort in the 38th.
The first fifteen minutes of the second half played out similarly, with no one able to reach Johnson's dangerous cross in the 54th, a defender sliding in to block Gerrard’s shot in the 58th, and an excellent Poleksic save on Gerrard’s placed strike a minute later. Lucas’s header wide in the 63rd, in a similar position to his miss on Saturday, marked another turning point in the match as Debrecen actually started to turn the screws. I doubt the home side had ten minutes of possession in Liverpool’s half prior to the hour mark.
Coulibaly’s entrance in the 62nd certainly helped matters, and it’s Debrecen’s manager’s fault for playing conservatively. Maybe he hasn’t seen much of Liverpool recently. But when the team’s top scorer came on, and Rudolf was given license to drop deeper to set up play, the tide turned.
Rudolf almost put Coulibaly through in the 68th, only to mishit the pass, before Mascherano had to make a last ditch tackle to keep the Hungarian out. Then, Coulibaly nearly beat the offside trap twice before his shot from an impossible angle forced Reina to save when he was expecting the cross. Capping off the evening was more abysmal late defending, allowing a long ball to bounce and cause panic in the penalty area, but Coulibaly could only weakly side-foot at Reina from less than 10 yards out. Now that would have summed up this season.
It’s moot now, seeing as Liverpool’s out despite accomplishing what they needed to today, but I was also baffled by Benitez’s substitutions, or lack thereof. Liverpool was dying for a change by the hour mark, but the first sub came on in the 77th, and it was Benayoun for Ngog, which says it all. It's always infuriating when Liverpool tries to strangle the life out of the game when only a goal to good, especially with how many dumb goals this team's conceded. To be fair, with Fiorentina winning, a win or a draw doesn't matter, and the team's stretched fairly thin as it is with yet another big game on Saturday. But it's still no fun to watch.
I’ll be honest – I thought Kuyt was dire today, which is a rarity even for me, so I was baffled when a striker who’d scored the lone goal was taken off for a creative midfielder. Dossena, making his third appearance of the season, came on for Aurelio in the 89th before Aquilani finally arrived in the second minute of injury time. Clearly, both subs were to waste time, but bringing on Aquilani that late – after Dossena no less – seems almost insulting. He’d better start against Everton, or there’s something we haven’t been told about his fitness or adaptation to England.
Had Lyon done the job in Italy – and to be fair, it wasn’t in their interests to; every club would like to see Liverpool out of the competition, no matter how insipid they’ve been of late – this performance would have sufficed, and could have been something to build on. By the end, it was annoyingly tame, but hey, at least another late goal wasn’t conceded.
Ngog played well, again scoring in place of Torres. Mascherano had a second successive "Mascherano game," finally looking up to speed and winning a fair few crucial tackles. The defense didn’t have any egregious mistakes. And Gerrard was far more mobile than against City. Yes, I’m well aware I’m stretching for positives. Liverpool scored two goals in two matches against a side that the other two clubs in the group scored 12 in three against. It's little wonder the team's out of the competition.
Liverpool dug its own grave before this match and paid the price. There’s little the club can do but keep trying to move forward. A derby match this weekend should go some way toward raising the adrenaline levels.
I guess, as Carragher said earlier today, Liverpool will just have to go and win the Europa League. And we’ll have to hope it doesn’t wreck the club’s finances.