Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel Johnson
Spearing Meireles Cole
Alan 18' (pen)
0-1 isn't the worst result to return to Anfield with. But that doesn't make today much easier to stomach.
The above line-up is the best demonstration of Liverpool's complete lack of depth yet. With Gerrard, Agger, Kelly, Shelvey and Aurelio injured, Suarez ineligible, and Carroll not ready for 90 minutes, Liverpool started Reina, 3 center-backs, one right back at left back, four central midfielders (three of whom are defensive midfielders), one attacking midfielder and a striker converted to winger converted to striker. And crammed them into a fairly orthodox 4-2-3-1 formation. Small wonder the side was goal-shy until Carroll came on in the 57th.
This will come off harsher than it's meant, but if you ever wanted to see what "a team of Carraghers" looks like, today was your day. Lacking in pace and attacking guile, Liverpool's plan was fairly clear: strangle the center of the pitch and pack the defense. Kuyt was wholly isolated and often caught offside. And to make matters worse, Liverpool consistently gave the ball away in dangerous positions, ensuring that keeping possession was a lost cause.
So it wasn't much of a surprise when Braga took the lead after 18 minutes, following yet another giveaway and a rash challenge by Kyrgiakos. Johnson, on one of his few forays forward, was too easily dispossessed, leading to a quick counter where Liverpool let Alan run 40 yards with the ball before he found Mossoro, scythed down by a step-too-slow Kyrgiakos after a clever turn. Alan duly converted the spot kick low into the corner despite Reina guessing correctly.
The goal prompted little response from Liverpool. Unable to stretch the opposition, Braga remained the better side. Liverpool never suffered another defensive breakdown from open play; Braga only threatened once – on a clever set piece where Mossoro was left open for a centered free kick but whiffed, followed by Silvio's cannon off the crossbar from approximately a mile away. But the complete and utter inability to string anything together in attack kept Liverpool second-best. The away side didn't take a shot until a minute into added time, a Meireles flicked header easily claimed by Artur.
Liverpool were marginally brighter after the interval, clearly lectured by an irate manager, with either Lucas or Poulsen looking to join the attack. But things never truly changed until Carroll replaced Poulsen, shifting to a 4-2-2-2 with Lucas and Spearing holding and Meireles and Cole on the flanks. The enormous striker won everything in the air, and took less than two minutes to create an excellent opportunity: flicking on for Kuyt, who was unable to collect when one-on-one with the keeper.
Four minutes after that, Liverpool should have gotten their own spot kick when Kaka felled Cole in the box. Cole dramatically emphasized the tackle, but Kaka clearly made contact with the player. It wasn't the first time the Belgian referee apparently favored the home side, and it wouldn't be the last.
Liverpool kept up the pressure for the next five to ten minutes, with Carroll's fierce shot deflected, Kuyt's chest-to-volleyed-effort saved, and Kyrgiakos header from a corner shouldered over the bar, but Braga blunted Liverpool's momentum by bringing on an extra defender for attacking midfielder Mossoro in the 69th, allowing the away side even less room to awkwardly operate.
With few opportunities to write about, the main talking point came in the 91st, when Kaka decided the best (read: only) way to stop Carroll was to intentionally elbow him directly in the face. Unsurprisingly, the referee saw absolutely nothing wrong with the challenge, which absolutely deserved a red card. It could have been much worse for Liverpool had Carroll been injured, but that he wholly threw himself into the next aerial duel demonstrated no ill effects.
Braga did well in the opening half with Liverpool so impotent, but it should still be an entirely different story at Anfield, especially if Gerrard, Agger or Aurelio's available or Carroll's ready to start. 0-1 is obviously precarious, but not the end of the world. Liverpool are behind, but will need to prevent the crucial away goal. If Braga score at Anfield, Liverpool will need three. But just one goal will get extra time, two will win the tie. And Liverpool can score twice against this lot.
A loss has been coming in this competition based on past European performances. It wasn't all that different from matches against Utrecht, Napoli, or Sparta. That Liverpool were so ineffective and disappointing for the first hour clearly worries, but they still could have gotten the desired 0-0 were it not for one rash challenge.