Liverpool’s misery continued in the Stade Gerland on Wednesday evening. A 90th minute Lisandro Lopez equaliser agonisingly cancelled out Ryan Babel’s magnificent opener and put a whole different reflection on the match and Liverpool’s qualification hopes in general. The Reds had been moments away from clinching a textbook European away victory at a crucial time.
A solid, commanding performance for the most part had been rewarded with Babel’s 83rd minute strike, to seemingly bring Liverpool’s hopes of reaching the last 16 alive after some less than impressive European form this season. However Lisandro’s last gasp goal suddenly leaves qualification hopes hanging by a thread.
Having lost 2 of their opening 3 fixtures in Group E, including a 2-1 reverse at home to Lyon in their last outing, The Reds headed into a crucial encounter in the South of France. The significance of the match seemed to have been emphasised by Rafa Benitez’s decision to withdraw the likes of Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun during the weekend defeat to Fulham with the Lyon clash seemingly in mind. With Fiorentina strongly fancied to win in their match against Debrecen, a Liverpool victory was vital, although defeat was unthinkable.
With the Likes of Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson and Albert Riera all still unavailable through injury, Benitez headed into the game with still depleted resources. However Daniel Agger, David N’Gog and Alberto Aquilani all returned to the squad and Fernando Torres was fit enough to start.
Despite the recent crisis of form surrounding the club, Liverpool did not look like the team lacking in confidence and impetus that many had anticipated. The visitors dominated possession for much of the match, particularly in the first half, and created the majority of the best chances, against their French opposition who were on the brink of qualification to the knockout stages. After a tentative opening to the match, the first genuine chance fell to Torres from an Emiliano Insua cross but his side-footed effort was saved comfortably by Hugo Lloris. And from that point on the Reds began to assert their dominance on the first half.
Javier Mascherano and Lucas were solid and tidy in midfield and provided a platform for the forward players to threaten. Dirk Kuyt’s effort from another Insua cross seemed to be heading into the net until Lloris tipped over, before the much-maligned Andriy Voronin was presented with the best chance of the half.
Voronin has consistently under-performed in a Red shirt and has been used sparingly this season. However this was the Ukrainian forward’s third start in succession and he was gifted with the opportunity to go some way to proving his critics wrong midway through the half, one which he was unable to capitalise on. Excellent vision from Mascherano released Voronin clear through on goal with a long free-kick over the top of the Lyon defence. Lloris stood up well but Voronin probably should have done better than shoot straight at the Lyon goalkeeper. How Liverpool fans longed that it was the clinical Torres on the end of Mascherano’s pass instead.
The signs were encouraging from Liverpool’s first half display. The Reds had been commanding in midfield, whilst the threat of Lyon had been limited with Pepe Reina barely tested. Although the delicate nature of Liverpool’s situation presided that anxiety and nerves were always likely to set into their play as the match progressed with no breakthrough.
Lyon continued to struggle to have an impact on the match and secure the point which they ultimately required for qualification. And Lucas had an excellent second half chance to break the deadlock and dent the home side’s hopes. The ball broke to the Brazilian on the left edge of the 6-yard box and, with just the goalkeeper to beat, Lloris again stood up brilliantly to block his goal bound effort. Before Kuyt’s overhead kick from the rebound was cleared off the line.
But in spite of their dominance of possession, Liverpool’s play began to resemble that of a side desperate for a winner that just didn’t seem likely to come. And Reina had to be alert to block Lyon’s first genuine chance midway through the half. With Liverpool lacking a genuine experienced right full-back, Jamie Carragher was shifted to right-back, with Agger partnering Sotirios Kyrgiakos in the centre. The previously untested central defensive pairing were solid and dependable for much of the match. But Kyrgiakos’s indecisiveness was almost punished when the lively Lisandro latched on to his weak back header, forcing Reina to save well.
For all of Lucas and Mascherano’s qualities – and I am not doubting either of them as both performed well on the night – neither can provide a genuine attacking and creative impetus in midfield. This has been a constant issue this season and it was again in evidence during the second period in Lyon. It was especially apparent with Voronin playing ahead of the midfield duo, as he too often allows the game to pass him by, leaving an evident void in the heart of the team. Fernando Torres – lacking fitness – did not really receive the service he required, although his pace, power and quality caused concern for Cris and Gassama at the back for Lyon all night.
The introduction of Babel at the expense of Voronin on 68 minutes proved to pivitol. As another maligned figure the Dutchman has failed to make the most of many of the opportunities he has been granted at Anfield, and subsequently his arrival to the field would hardly have been greeted with great anticipation by many fans. But he grasped his chance here. With the game seemingly headed for a disappointing and inadequate draw Babel received the ball 25 yards from goal and drove a sublime effort beyond the reach of Lloris and into the back of the net, reminding Liverpool fans just what he should be capable of.
The goal was greeted with adulation as The Reds qualification ambitions seemed to have been restored in an instant. Benitez was able to withdraw Torres for N’Gog on 87 minutes as Liverpool looked to see the victory out. But cruelly this was not to be the case, as The Reds defensive frailties were exposed once more in the 90th minute. Agger and Kyrgiakos had been solid enough throughout, but they failed to deal with a ball forward as Lyon searched for an equaliser and Lisandro was able to all too easily get in behind the away backline and capitalise on the error. Stabbing the ball beyond a helpless Reina to stun the visiting support into silence and secure Lyon’s progression.
The Argentine’s last gasp goal completely reverses Liverpool’s perception of what was otherwise a relatively solid European away performance, and is a potentially deadly blow to their hopes of progressing to the knockout phase. The Reds must now win both of their remaining fixtures and hope that Lyon can do them a huge favour in Florence at the end of this month if they are to avoid failing to qualify from the group stage for the first time since 2002/03. Otherwise the implications from both a footballing and financial perspective could be worrying.