Lyon 1 Liverpool 1: Rafa Benitez left to walk alone after last-gasp Lopez strike
How Rafa Benitez holds his head up high after this, heaven only knows. It will not be easy.
Not when his side failed so miserably to secure a much-needed victory here in Lyon. Not when they could not defend a lead Ryan Babel so spectacularly secured with only seven minutes remaining. Not when they now look certain to fail in their pursuit of a place in the second round of the Champions League.
It will not be easy when from the storm which engulfs Liverpool’s beleaguered manager came a thunderbolt that suddenly seemed to have saved him. Babel’s goal was a screamer from 25 yards, the Dutchman emerging as the unlikeliest of heroes and another supersub in true Anfield tradition.
But then came the lightning strike response from Lyon. Then came the equaliser, two minutes into stoppage time and scored, seemingly, after Michel Bastos had put Lisandro Lopez through with a header from an off-side position.
Amid the penalty box chaos Lisandro struck, leaving Liverpool’s dreams of a place in the last 16 tossed and blown.
Late drama: Lisandro Lopez calmly beats Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina in injury time
Head bowed, Benitez walked alone down the tunnel lost in his thoughts. Lost in the thoughts of what might have been. Lost in the memories of the chances his side had created. One for Andriy Voronin, another for Lucas. Chances that were squandered.
Before this contest, Benitez had tried to summon the spirit of that great Kop anthem. First with his moving pre-match press conference speech and again shortly before kick-off.
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was delivered in stereo inside the away dressing room at the Stade de Gerland but the message did not get through.
They might have snatched the lead after 83 mediocre minutes but Liverpool’s players did not stand with their manager here, leaving him to battle on alone under ever-increasing pressure. The kind of pressure that comes after six defeats in seven games and a European display as inept as this.
Lonely walk: Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez looks dejected after Lyon score their equalising goal
Liverpool’s route to the last 16 did not appear to be that daunting but the winners of 2005 and finalists of 2007 have made it look like the group of death. Four points from four games. A pathetic return for a club of Liverpool’s stature.
Last night Benitez might have had the excuse of so many injuries and the absence of Steven Gerrard. He might have been forced to send out Fernando Torres when the usually brilliant Spaniard may yet need a hernia operation.
But Liverpool had their opportunities to win here in Lyon and it was the manner in which they failed to do so that could yet haunt the troubled Anfield manager.
So many first class strikers have been ignored and discarded during Benitez’s five-and-a-bit year tenure but Voronin somehow remains and what a mess he made of the first-half opportunity that fell to him. Voronin demonstrated exactly why he is not considered good enough to secure a regular place for Ukraine and why he boasts a return of six goals in 30-odd appearances for his club.
Off the pace: Voronin missed a sitter
Not that it would be fair to let the 30-year-old carry all the blame.
Against a pretty ordinary French team — a pretty ordinary French team that has qualified for the last 16 with two games to spare — Liverpool lacked spark in just about every area. In midfield where they missed Gerrard, on the flanks where they lacked their usual threat and at full-back where Jamie Carragher was never going to be able to recreate himself in the Ashley Cole mould.
Torres, clearly struggling, was eventually substituted. A lack of service did not help him but the man was impotent by his own high standards.
He had one good chance when Emiliano Insua crossed and took it well with a first-time left foot shot, only for the outstanding Hugo Lloris to make the save.
Lloris then excelled in denying Dirk Kuyt by diverting a perfectly weighted lob over his crossbar with his fingertips, but the French side were causing problems of their own. Not least when they doubled up on Carragher in the role he loathes.
Predictably, Liverpool were missing the drive and invention Gerrard brings to their midfield. But where was the urgency and energy they so memorably produced against Manchester United? Where was the unity and the fight?
Belter: Sub Ryan Babel unleashes a thunderous drive into the top corner from 30 yards
Benitez could only watch in horror when Voronin squandered the opportunity that fell to him. A terrific ball from Javier Mascherano — a ball the pony-tailed striker called for as he accelerated from the half-way line — sent him clear with only Lloris to beat. But Voronin cracked under the pressure and unleashed a shot that was all too easy for the Lyon goalkeeper to block with a foot.
It was the kind of opportunity any number of strikers Benitez has had at Anfield, and released, would have scored. Certainly the kind of opportunity, had Benitez allowed him to return, that Michael Owen would have converted in his sleep.
That Lucas then failed to strike from close range in the 68th minute, albeit thanks again to the brilliant Lloris, only added to Liverpool’s pain. As did the sight of Kuyt’s overhead kick being cleared off the line.
But it compared not to the sight of the hapless Sotiris Kyrgiakos slipping and so allowing Lisandro to seize on Bastos’s headed delivery.
His goal leaves Liverpool in the most precarious of positions. Only if Lyon draw in Florence will Liverpool have a chance of progressing and even then they will have to conclude the first round by beating Fiorentina by three goals at Anfield. On this evidence, they do not have a hope.
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