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Liverpool’s unsavoury situation all too familiar

Liverpool 1-2 Fiorentina Champions League Matchday 6

As a competition, the Champions League has done great things and provided unforgettable moments for both Liverpool fans and football in general. The wonderful spectacle of the top players in world football competing against one another, along with the prestige of actually winning such a competition, is indisputable.

However, the Champions League era has also resulted in some less commendable circumstances. The focus which teams now place on achieving qualification for Europe’s showpiece, and the effort with which the top clubs strive to finish in what ultimately is only the fourth position in the domestic league, has subsequently undervalued the prestige of actually winning trophies.

Of course the Premier League title and Champions League crown will always remain the ultimate achievements. But these are only genuinely within the reach of a restricted few – even Liverpool have been short of this group often in recent times. Whilst any remaining honours have been devalued in the face of the, mainly financial, benefits which accompany Champions League qualification.

It could possibly be interpreted as a somewhat unsavoury situation, but it is one which Liverpool face once again. Triumphing in either the FA Cup or Europa League may be potential achievements which would go down in the history books – and Rafa will insist that the Reds intend to win these tournaments. But circumstance dictate that finishing a minimum of fourth in this seasons Premier League table must be the paramout focus.

REDS down and out. (Photo from fOTOGLIF).

Liverpool’s dour Champions League campaign was summed up when Alberto Gilardino’s injury time goal for Fiorentina condemned the Reds to an unacceptable third defeat in a group stage which was already guaranteed to end in elimination. For a club with such an illustrious European pedigree in recent years to bow out at such an early stage and in such a lacklustre fashion is, of course, disappointing. But failing to compete in the competition at all next season has the potential to be disastrous. As a club Liverpool have come to expect qualification and become almost addicted to the drug that is Champions League football. As all top clubs must.

We are, of course, viewing this from a predominately financial perspective – again as the changing footballing world, somewhat unfortunately, dictates. However, there are also actual footballing consequences. If Liverpool were fail to qualify for the top table of European for the first time in six seasons, then they would surely find it more difficult to attract top names to the club, at a time when the playing squad requires improvement. The club may even face the prospect of a struggle to keep hold of the top players currently at the club. Historically players have never left Liverpool during their peak years; however at present this is becoming an increasing possibility and one which should not be allowed to develop.

This seasons Champions League nightmare was ultimately brought to a conclusion by the same time which spelled the start of the Reds early exit back in late September. This wasn’t quite the same impressive brand of football from the Italians which inflicted a 2-0 defeat on the Reds in Florence in the reverse fixture; however Gilardino’s late goal brought the same result. As a dead rubber of a match in all senses, the result of this game was never going to be particularly significant. But conceding a crucial late goal for the third time in six group fixtures tells the story. Qualification can not be expected in such a situation. Neither can it from just two wins, only five goals scored and three points collected at Anfield.

This 2-1 reverse may have prolonged Liverpool’s agonising recent run of form and inflicted another unacceptable home defeat on the Reds, but prior to Fiorentina’s late knock out blow there had actually been some positives to take from a forgettable evening. The second half display, in particular, provided some encouragement for a famished home crowd.

After Yossi Benayoun’s glancing header from Steven Gerrard’s free-kick gave the Reds the lead at the very end of another dour half of football, Liverpool began to look more of a team in the second period. At long, long last Alberto Aquilani had been granted a place in the Liverpool starting line-up, against familiar foes for the cultured Italian. And Aqualani showed some good touches and a willingness to seek possession in an opening half which was once again typified by a lack penetration and quality in attack.

With David N’Gog omitted from the squad, Dirk Kuyt struggled in a starting role as a lone striker, which we are surely now aware he is not accustomed to. In fairness to the Dutchman he received limited support; however the introduction of Fernando Torres early in the second half proved just what a difference a striker of his quality can provide. A typically sharp and dangerous display from Torres on his return to fitness was probably the most encouraging aspect of the night.

Dani Pacheco made his Liverpool debut. (Photo from fOTOGLIF)

Torres’ partnership with another substitute, young debutant – and fellow Spaniard – Dani Pacheco transformed the Reds into a much improved attacking force in the second half. 18-year-old Pacheco has been receiving rave reviews for his performances in the reserves. And he showed the touch and technique here, that you would associate with a graduate of Barcelona’s academy, to suggest he has the ability to make the step up.

Andrea Dossena was another who produced a performance worthy of note on the left wing. The Italian has been somewhat of a forgotten man this season, but, based on this performance, he may be well worth a greater role in the future. He certainly seemed to provide much more than some of the alternative candidates for that position have this season.

However ultimately, despite the Reds improved second half efforts, they were once again out done by consistently more threatening and clinical opponents. As La Viola’s two second half strikes to clinch, a perhaps not wholly deserved, victory proved. Some unconvincing defending contributed to both away goals, although it was a lack a potency and creativity which hindered the Reds in reality. A return to form and fitness for some key players must now contrive to bring these problems to an end.

This has most certainly been a Champions League campaign to forget and should be locked in the same dark cupboard as the similarly unfruitful efforts of 2002/03 (unfortunately this season has gradually begun to draw uncanny parallels to that campaign). Whilst both teams contain some technically adept and talented players, neither Lyon nor Fiorentina possess the quality to challenge in the latter stages of the competition. Both will do well to progress beyond the next phase, and yet, worryingly, both have combined to eliminate the Reds. The sincere hope now is that this year is just a minor blip on the Reds enviable Champions League record. In order to ensure that this is to be the case, Liverpool must first ensure, at all costs, that they wrestle qualification for next seasons competition away from an increasingly confident shadow cast. Or face some unsavoury consequences.

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