PHEW! The expression on Dirk Kuyt’s drained face on the 92nd minute at Porto’s stadium said it all.
The Reds machine that so often starts winning campaigns with spluttering starts on cold Anfield nights nearly stalled in a hot tempered atmosphere against a blistering Porto.
It can’t always be 4-0 strolls in the park – the early group stage baptism of fire produced a reassuring draw in by far Liverpool’s toughest tie.
On occassional games you sneak a glimpse into the future. You knew that Porto were going to score in the first 10 minutes. You knew that Pennant was going to get sent off. You knew that Torres would not score because he couldn’t get the ball. You didn’t see Liverpool being routed by Porto.
Porto came out all guns blazing against a lacklustre Liverpool. Ricardo Quaresma who was linked with the Redmen during the summer transfer market was just outstanding. The number 7 put the unusually nervous Steve Finnan through the mangle whilst Arbeloa suffered at the hands of Tarik Sektioui and Gonzalez who struck a cool penalty down the middle beating Reina who seconds earlier caught the advancing Sektioui.
The first quarter of an hour was reminiscent of a pre-season friendly against Valencia at Anfield in 2003 when we couldn’t get the ball and Rafa was king of La Liga.
It was alarming to witness with Mascherano and Gerrard in midfield. Yet Porto looked like devils possessed at the opening as they sprinted wildly for every ball and were able to feast on too many stray Liverpool passes.
Babel was also jittery making some basic errors but kept in the game and earned a handful of promising free kicks.
Porto just advanced at every opportunity. Coach Jessualdo Ferreira must have tampered with the reverse gear or tortured them with repeats of Istanbul.
Still Liverpool held on.
Kuyt who had his best game yet was at the sharp end of a rare Liverpool passing combination with Hypia nodding into the box. The Dutchman’s strike similar to the consolation goal in the Athens final levelled the score at 1-1 on the 18th minute.
Porto players are renowned for falling to the ground like bandits in a spaghetti western shootout. When Rafa told the Redmen to stay on their feet Pennant should have pulled out his earplugs. His frustrations with Queresma and Fucile boiling over. Had he stayed on the pitch Liverpool might have nicked a late win. Pennant was getting into his stride after a torrid 20 minutes and with Crouch an option on the bench some late trademark crosses may have caused a threat.
The reds were run ragged defending to save the point. None more so that Kuyt who was like Superman holding up the stricken right wing. When Liverpool fans saw the turbulence sign on their captain’s face they fastented their seatbelts. On a quiet night for Gerrard- Kuyt was man of the match. He is starting to look more like a Liverpool striker and his performance will silence the critics. On a night of some slapstick first touches Kuyt had the last laugh with some clever passes.
There were a few positives from this game and good to see Fabio Aurelio back in.
Even when Pennant was sent off leaving half an hour of play Liverpool just dug deep and found another gear.
Lesser teams would have buckled under the propaganda of Porto trickery and invention but the Redmen who have been masterchefs in many of Hell’s kitchen’s slipped into defence mode and switched on the ventilation fan.
Another cauldron dodged by footballs greatest escapologists.
The omens bode well. The 2004 Champions League victors gave the 2005 and five times champions a run for their money but never cashed in. By the time they come to Anfield the big red machine should be purring like Blofeld’s cat.
LIVERPOOL showed their fighting quality as Rafa’s boys hung on for over half an hour with ten men to secure a point against an impressive Porto outlet. Porto, who were the best team throughout the game never let Liverpool settle. Liverpool never got the hold on the game Benitez would have wanted.
Porto took the game by the scruff of the neck from the off and caught Liverpool on the back foot, winning two corners early on. Some sloppy defending surprisingly from the ever consistent Steve Finnan minutes later when he failed to clear properly in his own box meant that the ball fell for Lisandro clear on goal but Pepe Reina was well out to get a good block in to save a certain goal. Ricardo Quaresma (who was linked several times with Liverpool during the summer) looked dangerous for the most part of the match, combining his skill and trickery he was a handful for the Liverpool defence to deal with. Porto got their just reward for their early dominance when Sami Hyppia was caught out by the pace of Sektioui when he charged through into the box past Hyppia and caused Pepe Reina to make a challenge but he failed to get the ball and took the man instead. Certain penalty. Lucho stepped up for Porto and confidently put the ball straight down the middle of the net, sending Reina diving to his left.
Liverpool were all over the place, everything they tried to conjure up was quickly broken down by Porto or was the result of poor passing across the middle of the park. Liverpools first real chance came in the 17th minute and was a decisive one. Steve Finnans lofted free kick from the right was headed across goal by Sami Hyppia (a man of mixed fortunes throughout the night) for Dutchman Dirk Kuyt to finish of well with his head from close range. Liverpool got a lucky break, for once. The rest of the half came with few chances, the only real decent chance was when Bruno ALves headed it wide from 6 yards after a good cross from the left.
Liverpool got the second half underway, a half that had very few clear cut chances and was mainly played in the middle of the park. Quaresma was the main man pushing Porto forward and teasing the Liverpool midfield and defence, but couldn”
t conjure up anything significant for his team. Liverpool had a claim for a penalty when Dirk Kuyt went down in the box after pressure from the Porto defender 10 minutes into the second half but to no avail. Liverpool were down to ten men minutes later when a determined Jermaine Pennant took out the Porto defender right on the byline. It was a needless challenge and deserved a 2nd yellow after his first was after 25 minutes when he fouled Quaresma. He deserved to be sent off but hopefully can learn from his mistake. A special mention for Dirk Kuyt who worked his socks off, especially in the second half when he had to cover for Jermaine Pennant down the right, man of the match for me. Liverpool hung on for over half an hour with ten men to gain Liverpool a point in the first game of the Champions League group stage.
A good result saying this is probably Liverpools toughest game in the group, and not playing particularly well and playing for over 30 minutes with 10 men, getting a point against a decent team like Porto is good.
Back to business in the Premiership on Saturday against Birmingham City.
Man of the Match: Dirk Kuyt
Liverpool: Reina, Arbeloa, Hyypia, Carragher, Finnan, Babel, Gerrard (captain), Mascherano, Pennant, Torres, Kuyt
Subs – Crouch, Itandje, Aurelio, Leiva, Voronin, Agger, Benayoun
FC Porto: , Fucile, Alves, Paulo, Bosingwa, Quaresma, Meireles, Assuncao, (captain), Lopez, Sektioui
Subs – Stepanov, Bolatti, Kazmierczak, , Farias, Cech, Gonzalez