Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Babel
As if Liverpool were going to line up or play any other way. A poor man’s version of Liverpool’s best stifling European performances, and they finally paid for increasing Lille pressure six minutes from full time. That’s this season.
0-1 isn’t the worst result; it at least leaves Liverpool an opening going into the next leg. But they definitely didn't do themselves any favors and we’ll certainly need to see much more invention and a finishing touch in front of goal.
Despite Lille being on top for the majority of the match, with Liverpool happy to soak up pressure and look for the counter, the away side had the better chances in the first half. On any other day Liverpool could have scored from two breaks led by Babel and Torres in the 15th and 26th – the first blocked off by Rami's wonderful diving challenge on Torres’ throughball and the second stopped when Landreau stuck out a leg to deny the Dutchman – and when Landreau somehow kept out Torres’ point-blank header in the 42nd. But Lille had almost all the chances in the second, and that’s where the game was won.
The first 10 minutes were all Lille, marked by a Cabaye shot straight down Reina’s throat within 30 seconds and a tremendous turn past Insua and run by Hazard only to see his delicious center skitter across the six-yard box.
But the visitors were able to settle, mainly through Agger imperious in the air and Mascherano everywhere, leading to those Liverpool chances. Lille continued to see far more of the ball, but Liverpool did well to contain outlets like Hazard and Obraniak. It looked as if Lille would finish the half far stronger, but Liverpool should have been one-up against the run of play in the 42nd. Torres relieved the pressure by sprinting from his own half to win a free kick just outside the area. Gerrard’s low shot was pushed away and half-cleared out to Johnson, whose inch-perfect cross found Torres at the back post, only for Landreau to better his earlier save on Babel.
The second half was far nervier, 50-50 and played mostly in midfield as the two teams probed for openings with Liverpool setting the tempo. But after a Babel shot against the run of play which stung Landreau’s palms on the hour mark, Lille upped the tempo and the pressure.
Hazard, Cabaye, and Obraniak were able to push Lille forward, and chances arrived with 25 to play. Reina could only punch Frau’s dipping blast behind for a corner, and Agger nearly put that corner in his own net when Liverpool couldn’t fully clear. Five minutes later, a thunderbolt from Cabaye narrowly whizzed over the crossbar. And five minutes after that, more lovely play from Hazard led to a Dumont shot that Reina spilled but gratefully gathered before anyone could attempt a rebound.
Riera came on for a tiring Babel in the 74th (and was basically a waste of space, which would explain why he hasn’t featured much) as Benitez seemed hesitant to use subs with the game plan still working. But, in keeping with this season, Liverpool finally conceded from a truly unlucky goal in the 84th. Hazard won a soft free kick from the left channel, and his perfectly-weighted ball eluded everyone to tuck into the side-netting, with Reina rightfully expecting a header. Of course. But if anyone deserved a goal, it was Hazard, head and shoulders the most threatening on the pitch. He's gonna cost some top club a lot of money in the near future, but will make them very happy in the process.
It could have been an even unluckier two-nil when Aubemeyang hit the post three minutes later as Liverpool's confidence took the expected hit. An 89th minute scramble in the box where Gerrard and Torres’ close-range efforts were blocked and a 93rd minute Gerrard stabbed effort also closed down almost brought an unlikely away goal, but no dice. No surprise.
The sad thing is that Liverpool didn’t play badly. It was absolutely an improvement on Wigan, as the players at least appeared to recognize each other. Once again, we didn’t see enough in attack – a few moments of brilliance from Babel and Torres so close to breaking the ice, but Babel tired and Torres once again resorted to petulance with constant fouling unpunished, while Gerrard and Kuyt were again below par (even if, again, both were better than on Monday). Hazard had a big game, but Insua matched him for long stretches; any left back was going to be beaten a few times by that winger today.
It could easily have ended 0-0, or even 1-0 had Landreau not kept out Torres’ header. A one-goal deficit obviously isn’t welcome, and yet another away loss will heap pressure on the players and Benitez. The attack still looks too impotent, even if chances were always going to be few and far between in a first leg away match in Europe. That’s this team and this manager.
Liverpool will have score in a week’s time at Anfield in addition to preventing an away goal that would give Lille a bigger edge. It's doable, even with the state the side's in. Crucial to this team’s confidence and attacking fluency is Monday’s match against Portsmouth, where I expect (hope) Benitez will ring changes in the front six to finally find a formation that can finally find the net.