Rafa Benitez declared post match that Liverpool will never again be as bad as they were in Tuesday evenings 2-0 humbling against Fiorentina in the Stadio Artemio Franchi. The Reds were completely out-played by their impressive Italian opposition for 45 minutes and head back to Merseyside with much to ponder ahead of Sunday’s crunch encounter with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
With Javier Mascherano nursing a slight hamstring strain, picked up in training, and Alberto Aquilani still unavailable, Liverpool started the game with the untested combination of Fabio Aurelio and Lucas in central midfield. With Steven Gerrard reverting to a more advanced role behind Fernando Torres, a lack of graft and experience perhaps didn’t help to contain Fiorentina as an attacking force. But few excuses can be made for an all round poor performance.
Whilst many had anticipated a touch test for Liverpool in Florence, few would have predicated Fiorentina to have produced quite the devastating performance which they did in the opening minutes. Young Montenegrin forward Stevan Jovetic – who probably would not have started the match had leading scorer Alberto Gilardino not been suspended – ran the game in the first half. The 19 year-old sensation was unknown to English viewers prior to the game, but he seemed to be everywhere and scored both Fiorentina goals on the night.
Whilst Fiorentina were undoubtedly impressive, and buoyed on by a frantic home crowd put in a performance beyond what many had anticipated from them, Liverpool were disappointing and below par. La Viola exposed the Liverpool defence time and again in the first period, as the Reds appeared to be on the back foot from the opening whistle.
Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel were often caught flat footed and struggled to cope with the movement and ingenuity of Jovetic and Adrian Mutu. With Gobbi and Marchionni consistently causing problems down the flanks; Emilliano Insua has Liverpool’s midfield never really provided the necessary cover for the backline. The Reds perhaps missed a Gerrard or Mascherano in midfield and Yossi Benayoun regularly left Insua exposed down the left.
The warning signs were there early on for Liverpool. After Torres had come close to latching on to a Gerrard through ball in the early minutes, an excellent clock tackle from Skrtel was required with Jovetic through on goal, before an acrobatic overhead kick by Mutu from a corner flew inches over.
The Italian side took the lead on 28 minute. The ever-lively Jovetic exposed a gap in the Reds defence and when Cristiano Zanetti played the ball through for the Montenegrin to slide past Pepe Reina the onside decision seemed marginal. Replays proved the assistant referee correct as Insua had undermined Liverpool’s offside trap.
Fiorentina’s lead was probably deserved due to their opening dominance and the home side seemed to grow in confidence as the noise level increased inside their old ground. Fiorentina continued to threaten and worse was to come for Liverpool. When Juan Vargas shot at goal on 37 minutes the excellent Jovetic cleverly diverted the effort just beyond Reina with the Spaniard beaten at his near post.
Liverpool simply didn’t turn up in the first half and the verve and tempo of Fiorentina’s attacking play seem to leave the visitors shell shocked. Some frustratingly overzealous refereeing from the German officials didn’t help matters. However, continuous mistakes and an inability to even string a few passes together left Rafa looking distinctly displeased heading in for his half time team talk.
No personnel changes were made by Benitez but Liverpool come out after the interval a changed team and were finally able to impose some authority on the match. But to their credit, having been full of creativity and attacking flair in the first half, the Italians were also very well organised and defended well in the second.
Liverpool dominated possession throughout the second half with the home side largely happy to rest on their two goal advantage. Benayoun’s trademark run and shot to the near post early in the second period required a good block from Sebastian Frey. And from the resulting corner Lucas headed fractionally over when he should have done much better with a free header in front of goal.
But the general feeling was that one of those chances had to find the back of the net if the Reds were to stage a comeback which never truly seemed likely. Fiorentina were able to quell Liverpool’s attacking threat for much of the remainder of the match, with Torres and Gerrard well marshalled and never able to produce anything inspirational. Torres had a good appeal for a penalty turned refused midway through the half and later shot agonisingly over from Skrtel’s cross.
Liverpool were deservedly beaten in Florence against an admittedly impressive Italian outfit. Having built a reputation on solidity and reliability in Europe under Rafa’s reign – especially away from home – this result and, more importantly performance, is a worry for the staff and travelling fans. Although, on reflection, with 3 points already on the board and 4 games still to play – two of which are at home and one of which is away to Debrecen – Liverpool are still in a strong position to progress to the knockout phase.
Although a more immediate concern is the weekend visit to Stamford Bridge, a game which Liverpool cannot really afford to lose, off the back of this poor showing. As Benitez demands, the Reds will have to improve.