06 October 2007

Review of the 1st lost in Anfiled

It was compelling viewing. A stream of fabulous goals, the Kop in raptures. There was a sense of history being created "before your very eyes" as another Liverpudlian, Arthur Askey, would have said.
Liverpool launched their own television station with some absolutely iconic images but it is a fair bet that the tapes of their first Champions League game at home this season,
against Marseille on Wednesday night, will be sent to the deepest part of the Anfield vaults.
Unless they stage a rapid recovery, not just in the home and away fixtures with Besiktas but over their next four games, Liverpool will be consigned to the dank cellar of European football that trades under the name of the Uefa Cup. It is a trophy Rafael Benitez has already won at Valencia – beating of all sides Marseille in the final – but it is a trophy he has no intention of competing for again.
When asked to discuss their opening Champions League fixture, the desperate 1-1 draw at Porto, Sami Hyypia seemed not to know what had gone wrong. Liverpool had prepared properly; they had come to Portugal on the back of their best start under Benitez, the mood in the camp was buoyant. They simply played abysmally.
Outside the home dressing-room after the damning 1-0 defeat on Wednesday night, Jamie Carragher displayed a similar sense of bewilderment.
"I don't know why we have started so slowly in the Champions League. We have done all right in the Carling Cup, we have done all right in the league, it is difficult to put your finger on it," he said before suggesting that this was a result that had been coming.
"We have not done so well in recent games and we only sneaked a result at Wigan at the weekend. This time it has gone the other way."
Put simply, Liverpool have been grinding to a halt for several weeks now, and against Marseille they seized up completely.
If you set aside Fernando Torres' virtuoso display in the Carling Cup at Reading, Liverpool have managed two goals and one laboured victory in five games. In the Dragao Stadium last month, they were rescued by a single moment of defensive frailty.
No football man will ever admit to underestimating the opposition, although a few years ago Sir Bobby Robson came close with his observation that "we didn't underestimate them, they were just better than we thought." Carragher made a similar comment. "Sometimes teams that you don't know much about, the ones that aren't the really big teams, can surprise you and Marseille had some really tasty players," he confessed.
Benitez takes every opponent seriously, although his selections suggested he thought Marseille, under the care of a manager who had only seen them play on video, were eminently beatable at Anfield.
While Momo Sissoko casually and continually squandered possession and young Sebastian Leto floundered out of his depth, Javier Mascherano, Liverpool's most consistently reliable midfielder, spent the night on the bench.
Only when Mathieu Valbuena had broken through with 13 minutes remaining did they throw themselves at Marseille and only a post prevented Liverpool from beginning Group A with a second, scarcely-deserved draw. When they travel to Istanbul, which for him must be a city of a thousand memories, you trust Benitez will stop experimenting and pick his 11 best players – if he knows who they are.
Liverpool's Champions League campaign is not yet at a state of absolute crisis, but they desperately need two victories against Besiktas – which are both possible.
Liverpool have felt the wall digging into their backs before, most notably two years ago when they had to win their last group game against Olympiakos or suffer the consequences. They qualified spectacularly – and took the first steps on a road that led to glory in Istanbul.

Liverpool's last six games
Portsmouth (a) 0-0
Benitez blames early kick-off after an international break for a poor display.

Porto (a) 1-1
Liverpool are lucky to escape from a dreadful start and Jermaine Pennant's dismissal with a point.

Birmingham (h) 0-0
Steve Bruce's side have become a bogey team at Anfield and they prove it once more.

Reading (a) 4-2
He would prefer to do it in Europe but Fernando Torres shows the breath of his talent in the Carling Cup.

Wigan (a) 1-0
A win but for more than an hour it looked as if Wigan would frustrate just as Birmingham and Portsmouth had done.

Marseille (h) 0-1
Odd selection, even odder performance and now the Champions League is at risk.

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