Darby Skrtel Agger Insua
Benayoun Gerrard Dossena
Well, that adequately sums up this year’s Champions League campaign.
Another below speed first half, but Liverpool went ahead thanks to Benayoun. Better play in the second half still saw Liverpool ship two goals, both on the break, including another injury time winner. At this point, it’s funny, right? I mean, this season’s been so implausible it has to be funny. This has to be a joke. I think Andy Kaufman’s writing the script.
The game started brightly enough given the circumstances and team sheets. Liverpool looked to attack, and Fiorentina, with two holding midfielders in Donadel and Montolivo, congested and stifled. The first forays forward came down Liverpool’s left – the best early on after Aquilani and Gerrard combined to put Dossena in space, with Kuyt unable to get to the cross. That’d be a recurring theme.
Ngog must have picked up a late injury, not even in the squad after doing the press conference with Benitez yesterday. Once again, Kuyt made no headway as a lone striker. Liverpool consistently had little presence in the box when crosses came in, and the Dutchman was offside five times in the first half (the referee played on once with Fiorentina in possession). That’s as bad as Cisse or Baros.
Hearts were in mouths in the 11th when Agger’s short back pass let Santana in, but Cavalieri came out to close down. As Liverpool proved unable to ask questions, the away side grew in stature. And it was Liverpool’s left that looked vulnerable when Fiorentina attacked.
In the 26th, Fiorentina had two chances down that flank, as De Silvestri’s cross just eluded Jorgensen before Gilardino reached a throughball at the byline, only for Jorgensen to sky the cutback. Seven minutes later, there were two more close calls in quick succession, as Cavalieri did well to tip over De Silvestri’s close-range header from a corner before the keeper caught Montolivo’s bouncing volley from the subsequent set-play.
That Torres warming up around the 40th minute drew the loudest applause summed up the first half to that point. But three minutes later, Gerrard won a free kick outside the box on the right, and the captain’s ball in was perfectly met by an unmarked Benayoun at the near post, his flicked header beating Frey low into the far corner.
From there, it should have been Liverpool’s game. And the team stepped it up in the second half, much better going forward and rarely threatened until exposed, once again, on the break. Seconds before Liverpool were to bring on Torres, Fiorentina charged down Liverpool’s left. An early ball was cleverly dummied to Gilardino, who found Jorgensen out wide when Darby was sucked inside. With an acre of space, the winger made no mistake. Naturally, Liverpool should have extended their lead less that a minute before, when Agger was an inch away from meeting Gerrard’s free kick. ‘Funny old game’ doesn’t even cover it.
Torres’ entrance – for Kuyt – livened Liverpool, and the home side had the better chances in an increasingly open game that both teams wanted to win. Fiorentina sent on heavyweights Vargas and Marchionni, but Liverpool responded with Gerrard shooting into the side netting after a scramble in the box and Dossena narrowly missing Torres’ cross.
Aquilani lasted 76 minutes, replaced by Pacheco (making his first appearance). It’s hard to divine much from Aqua’s performance; it was his first start in a new team, not even the first XI, after an almost yearlong injury. He had some clever touches, combining well with Gerrard on a few occasions, and some bad giveaways. He doesn’t spend nearly as much time on the ball as Alonso, but showed a similar range of passing and looked to push the ball forward instead of sideways or backwards. I wasn’t impressed by his tackling or tracking back, and would be incredibly surprised if he started on Sunday. It’s early days, but I didn’t see anything to change my initial impression. He’s a more attacking option, something different and with obvious talents, but we’re still going to see a fair bit of Lucas/Mascherano.
And it was Pacheco that nearly won the game with his first touch. Receiving the ball on the left edge of the box, Pacheco cracked a snap shot that Frey had to turn around the post. That would have been a hell of a way to debut. Chances continued, but none as good, as Liverpool remained just inches off. Another persistent theme this season. Twice more the team just failed to connect with crosses into the box – Torres a step behind Gerrard’s after a smart run and Dossena unable to make good contact jumping between two defenders.
And then, once again, Liverpool were punished. And, unfortunately, it’s down to Stephen Darby. I don’t want to blame a young player making his first start. I truly don’t. And it’s not as if the kid didn’t do admirably for most of the game. But when he dawdled in possession in the 92nd minute, the dangerous Vargas nipped in and stripped him. Charging down an open flank, it was easy for the Peruvian to center for Gilardino. 1-2. And with seven points and a -2 goal difference, Liverpool won’t even be seeded for the Europa League draw.
It’s deserved, just like Fiorentina deserves to top the group. I want to excoriate much of the performance – especially the first half and late goal – but I wrote that this was a "meaningless" game multiple times. The amount of changes to the line-up hopefully indicates that this will have little bearing on the team’s league form, which had improved through November before last Saturday’s poor draw. This Champions League’s been nothing short of awful. Let’s hope Liverpool’s exit from it marks the start of something different.