Champions League Group E
- guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 20 October 2009 22.00 BST
The Champions League has been a scene of spectacle for Liverpool on many occasions, but now they must achieve the highly improbable if they are simply to survive the group stage. They were defeated here as Lyon capped a comeback with the winner in the 90th minute, as César Delgado tuned in a perfect low cross from Sidney Govou.
The scorer was a substitute and so, too, the scorer of the equaliser, Maxime Gonalons. That is not simply a statistical curio. It will make Liverpool wince all the more when they recognise the contrast with their own depleted state. Rafael Benítez had to send out an improvised selection from the kick-off.
Steven Gerrard then lasted a mere 25 minutes until a recurrence of his adductor muscle injury forced him from the field. There was booing at the end, but that must surely have been a venting of frustration or a general comment on the condition of the club. A makeshift line-up could hardly have offered more.
The crowd was staring in horror at the broader circumstances. Their team have already been beaten four times in the Premier League and Manchester United will come here on Sunday with great hope of adding to that heap of dismay. This season, too, it now appears that there will be no exploits in the Champions League to compensate for a domestic problem that could be nothing more than a thankless slog.
If spirit were decisive in football, Liverpool would have held out against Lyon. The home support, however, has long understood that the squad is shallow in quality. With Gerrard's participation curtailed and Fernando Torres not fit to take part at all, the side had to deal with a match that was played on the edge of jeopardy.
Liverpool's fans will quibble anew about some of Benítez's purchases, but the main target of rage will, once again, be the owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks. The Americans, for their part, will be even less capable of assuaging the anger with January signings if early elimination chokes off the flow of Champions League cash.
Benítez's side have not been knocked out yet, but the return with Lyon is next in this tournament, on 4 November. In addition, Liverpool have a single group match remaining at home, against Fiorentina, even if Debreceni will surely hand over three points in Hungary. This has the makings of far more than a rough season for Liverpool.
The pride within the line-up was vast here, but the outcome confirmed that such an attribute will not suffice. This could be a grim turning point in Liverpool's affairs.
It is rational to suppose that Hicks and Gillett would already be open to offers, but the size of bids to take the club off their hands will drop sharply. Like Mike Ashley at Newcastle United, they might simply see no acceptable way to shed their ownership.
Hicks and Gillett may be counting now on nothing more than the sheer peculiarity of football. This Liverpool side, after all, had appeared capable of extracting a win against Lyon despite every handicap. With Glen Johnson ruled out by a groin strain, the 19-year-old Martin Kelly made his first start, having only ever appeared before for a mere eight minutes as a substitute.
The Liverpool manager was naturally determined to limit disruption elsewhere. Despite the injury to Torres, Dirk Kuyt was kept in his now customary wide role, with the 20-year-old David Ngog at centre-forward. There was every cause for the side to be disjointed and the visitors might well have deepened the misgivings by taking the lead.
Liverpool did occupy territory and went on to make use of that foothold. Fábio Aurélio, on for Gerrard, achieved prominence before the interval. It was his thrust from the left that led to Yossi Benayoun firing home in the 41st minute after the ball had deflected off Cristiano Cris.
The Lyon centre-half had to go off injured just before half-time and Liverpool had a period in which they seemed calm, but it did not last. Gonalons, who took over for the injured Cris, notched the equaliser. Each seemingly random event appeared to punish Liverpool.
Ricochets in the goalmouth never ferried the ball to safety in the 72nd minute. Reina blocked efforts by Jérémy Tolulalan and Govou, but he could not stop the header from Gonalons. Amid the mayhem, Kelly also collided with a post and had to make way for Martin Skrtel. Liverpool had no means left to transcend all the adversity.