Liverpool suffered a worrying fourth straight defeat at the hands of Lyon at Anfield in the Champions League on Tuesday evening. At 22 years of age, this is the worst sequence of results the Reds have suffered since before this columnist was born, and provided further evidence of difficult times at the club.
With the season still in its formative stages there will be further opportunities to resurrect form and reputations, as is football. But the fact that Cesar Delgado’s injury time winner merely served to confirm a miserable European night at Anfield is a big concern. The home crowd vented their frustration, both at the withdrawal of goal scorer Yossi Benayoun on 84 minutes and then at the full time whistle. And there is now no disguising the fact that this is perhaps the most testing period of Rafa Benitez’s tenure at Liverpool.
There is no doubt that a succession of injuries, combined with a general lack of confidence is hampering the team at the present moment. Benitez went into the match with additional injuries to Glen Johnson and Albert Reira, with Fernando Torres still unavailable and Alberto Aquilani still way off match fitness. Combine this with further injuries to fringe players Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Andrea Dossena; and when Steven Gerrard limped off the field with a recurrence of his recent groin problem after 25 minutes, Liverpool’s lack of depth and quality was completely exposed.
With Gerrard’s premature exit from the field many have suggested that the midfielder was rushed back too quickly from his latest injury. Although, considering Liverpool’s current injury crisis and chronic lack of strength in depth, it was perhaps understandable that Benitez was eager to get his captain and key man back into action for such a pivotal Champions League encounter. After Gerrard’s enforced substitution though the Reds seemed to severely lack players the creativity and ability in order to regularly threaten the French side.
It is apparent that Liverpool are lacking players capable of taking possession of the ball and asserting control over a football match, particularly in midfield. In the past, even as recently as last season, the Reds were always able to take control of football matches with sustained periods of possession and pressure, particularly during home matches such as this. When Torres and Gerrard are on the pitch their pure presence and ability can often counter this problem. But with both men missing, the midfield duo lack creativity and ability in possession, whilst there is also a dearth of quality in the front line.
Javier Mascherano was one of the few standout performers on Tuesday evening, with a trademark energetic and destructive performance. But unfortunately the little Argentine’s game does not stretch to posing any great creative or attacking threat from midfield. Mascherano is suited to playing alongside a contrasting player with that sort of ability, but in Lucas his currently has a partner who is just too similar. The Brazilian’s game lacks a dimension, preferring to keep things tidy and simple and quickly getting rid of possession, whilst not seeming capable of adjusting to the absolute necessity of a more attacking role.
Sure Liverpool have players in there squad currently unavailable who are capable of mitigating this problem, in Steven Gerrard and Alberto Aquilani. But a lot of unwelcome pressure is currently building week-by-week on the Italian as he nears fitness.
From the off against Lyon the Reds seemed to lack enough weapons to threaten their organised and technically gifted French counterparts. David N’Gog was given a starting berth as the lone striker, with Rafa reverting to his standard formation following the weekend defeat. And the young French forward did give the home side more of an attacking presence upfront – especially when compared to the other alternatives for the role Andriy Voronin and Dirk Kuyt – and worked tirelessly throughout. However, ultimately N’Gog lacks composure and an ability to hold the ball up and bring the likes of Benayoun into play. His inclusion merely underlines the bewilderment that Liverpool do not have a forward of experience and quality as backup to Torres in the squad; especially when you consider the attacking options of sides such as Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City.
The loss of Gerrard midway through the first period actually initially inspired the Reds to rally and they had their best period of the game either side of the interval. Benayoun, perhaps the only genuine creative threat in a Liverpool shirt, broke the deadlock with a well-overdue Liverpool goal on 41 minutes. Fabio Aurelio, who had replaced Gerrard in an unusually advanced role, crossed well for the Israeli at the far post to slot home.
Chances had been at a premium up until the opening goal. The ever-reliable Pepe Reina was forced into a good block from the lively Lisandro Lopez after just 9 minutes and, just prior to Benayoun’s opener, French winger Sidney Govou had come close to connecting with a dangerous Kim Kallstrom ball. The Lyon keeper had been forced into a save from N’Gog after Gerrard’s withdrawal, but it wasn’t until the Reds had taken the lead that they began to create chances. Aurelio could have doubled the advantage on the stroke of half-time. The excellent debutant Martin Kelly provided an exquisite cross to the back post and Aurelio’s header forced Lloris into a fingertip save in the away goal.
Young full-back Kelly was arguably the only plus point to take from a deeply disappointing evening, before being forced off through another injury. With Johnson injured – and Philip Degen also ineligible – the academy graduate, who had impressed on loan at Huddersfield Town last season, grasped his opportunity. Kelly provided another excellent cross early in the second half which N’Gog really should have made much more of in a great position.
However as the match progressed Liverpool’s inability to control the game punished them and an impressive Lyon side posed an ever-increasing threat. It had seemed like the Reds might hang on despite another below-par performance, but substitute Maxime Gonalons grabbed the equaliser in the 72nd minute, in spite of the best efforts of Reina. The goal again stemmed from a set-piece, Reina almost bailed Liverpool out with successive saves from Jeremy Toulalan and Jean Makoun but the Spaniard was helpless to prevent Gonalons at the third attempt.
With the score level Lyon always seemed like the side with the greater ability and more likely to find a winner. With Benitez surprisingly opting to replace Liverpool’s only genuine threat, Benyoun, for Voronin on 84 minutes, it appeared the home crowd were at least going to be able to settle for a point. But agonisingly in the first minute of stoppage time Miralem Pjanic broke away for Lyon, who played in Govou with Emiliano Insua caught out of position and the ball to the far post was turned in by Delgado in acres of space. Leaving Liverpool’s Champions League hopes in a precarious position and both their confidence and form at rock bottom going into Sunday’s crunch clash with Man United.