Braga win 1-0 on aggregate
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Wilson
Cole Meireles Lucas Maxi
Hoofing in the direction of Carroll is slightly prettier than the previous aimless hoofing, but it's no more successful.
Without true wingers, Liverpool's attack broke down when Cole broke down. He lasted a little more than 20 minutes. For the first half of the first half, the home side were actually excellent. The 4-2-2-2 formation showed attacking intent, Johnson and Wilson attempted to get forward, and Carroll won header after header. Braga posed a couple of early threats from set plays, but otherwise couldn't trouble Liverpool's back line.
Unsurprisingly, Carroll was the centerpiece. His flick-on created the first opening, in the 8th minute, with Cole's point blank shot saved. Carroll then won the subsequent corner, heading wide of the near post. Four minutes later, clever play from Maxi nearly released the new number 29, only to be arguably ruled offside (not for the last time). And in the 22nd, the referee could have leveled the tie's penalty count when Carroll was pushed in the back on a corner, but – like his counterpart last week – ignored protests and, to delightfully add insult to injury, called a foul on the striker. There were two softer shouts in the 34th minute when Braga defenders resorted to pushing Carroll and Lucas to prevent chances, but – again like last week – Liverpool's problems were more of their own making than the officials'.
After 25 minutes, Braga began nullifying Liverpool by keeping possession. Increasingly reliant on hoofs toward a giant striker and out-numbered in midfield was a deadly combination. To compound matters, Alan had the beating of Wilson time and time again, but Carragher and Skrtel kept Reina fairly comfortable.
Matters didn't change much after the interval, especially since Braga were happy to retreat step by step, packing men into its own half. Getting absolutely nothing from the flanks, play was wretchedly bogged down in midfield. Liverpool had no response other than more and more punts to the forwards. Lucas and Meireles probably have stiff necks from watching the ball sail overhead all day.
The substitutions, made with 15 minutes to play, only exacerbated the trend. Spearing replaced Maxi, Ngog replaced Cole, and Liverpool kept the same formation. Kuyt went left, Meireles went right, and the ball went in the direction of Ngog or Carroll, both surrounded by approximately three defenders at all times.
With complete possession in the last ten minutes, the home side finally created three more chances. The first was a Carroll header from Meireles' corner, on target, blocked by Kuyt's head. The second, moments later, came when Carragher hoofed the ball back into Skrtel, whose barely-believable chest then volley was smartly parried by Artur. The third, deep in injury time, saw Ngog unable to make contact with Meireles' perfectly-lofted free kick. You've probably noticed all three of those started from set plays.
And thus, any hope of Europe next season or a trophy in this ends not with a bang but a whimper. Liverpool have few complaints about either. The squad is supermodel thin and suffering from injuries, but Liverpool could have played until tomorrow without scoring. The club may have been unbeaten in the competition until the last leg, but through ten Europa League games (not counting qualifiers), they only won three. Five of the six draws ended 0-0.
Just as the league has often revealed Liverpool's problems in defense, the Europa League laid bare the weaknesses in attack. Suarez couldn't have been more missed against both Braga and Sparta Prague. Carroll looks a handful, but also ended up hindering Liverpool tactically, as was feared. This team has no width and no guile. Suarez remedies just one of those faults, and he's just one player.
Liverpool have a lot of work to do this summer. And now it has to be done without the allure of European football.