MARTIN SAMUEL: Tatty bye, Rafa Benitez - Victory in violet leaves the Reds feeling blue

The celebrations at the end told the story. Fiorentina could not believe they had made it out of Liverpool’s group.

They paraded in front of the Curva Fiesole, a rhapsody in violet, every last drop of energy drained by the supreme effort of resisting a late Lyon surge.

And, in those moments, we saw the simple passage Liverpool had surrendered in Europe this season.

Dario Dainelli, Alberto Gilardino and Massimo Gobbi

Victors in violet: Dario Dainelli, Alberto Gilardino and Massimo Gobbi celebrate the victory against Lyon

For Fiorentina were terrified at the thought of going to Anfield next month. Hell, they were scared rigid by the sight of Lyon with their tails up.

Had Liverpool done a job in France earlier this month, or against Lyon at home, a place in the last 16 would have been guaranteed.

Fiorentina are fragile, edgy, given to self doubt. Yet they did something Liverpool could not in the Champions League this year. They held on: and that is why they are in the last 16, and why they deserve to be there.

For a long period, Fiorentina were the better team. They played the best football, had the best chances, until late on when Claude Puel, the Lyon coach, introduced his star striker, Lisandro, and threw the kitchen sink at securing at least a draw and first place in the group.

Fiorentina froze. They defended too deep, inviting Lyon on, and became imprisoned in their half. Sebastien Frey, the goalkeeper, looked vulnerable and made the curious decision to punch clear a free-kick that arrived dipping at waist height.

His central defenders appeared to abdicate responsibility, allowing a ridiculous number of crosses to pitch in the penalty area.

The crowd howled their dismay. As a tutorial on the way to throw away a football match, it could not have been bettered.

As Fiorentina floundered and fluttered we saw what the final game at Anfield could have looked like, had only Liverpool stayed in touch.

This is not an outstanding team. Fiorentina can play, but they lack mental strength. Had Lyon equalised and Liverpool needed to win 3-0 to progress on December 9, it would have been the time to bet like men.

Juan Vargas

On the spot: Juan Vargas celebrates after scoring the penalty that sees Fiorentina into the knockout stages of the Champions League

Somehow, though, Fiorentina survived. The victory was slender yet, ultimately, deserved.

Perm any one from two for who made the crucially mistimed tackle on Marco Marchionni for the decisive penalty in the 26th minute, but Aly Cissokho seemed to have got there marginally later than Cris.

There were no real complaints, and only unbridled elation from the home side when Juan Vargas, the Peru midfielder, stepped up slow but finished fast, his spot-kick struck smartly to Hugo Lloris’s right.

At the other end, Frey made outstanding saves from Jean Il Makoun and Lisandro, and eventually referee Olegario Benquerenca, from Portugal, brought Florentine anguish to an end, at which moment Stadio Artemio Franchi achieved lift off and the truth behind the night’s noisy facade became apparent.

Cesare Prandelli, the Fiorentina coach, had talked this up as the biggest match of the season, and now we know why.

Nobody is better aware of a side’s weakness than their trainer, and Prandelli knew his would not withstand the pressure of a showdown at Anfield.

The team bus travelled to the ground on a sea of bravado, escorted by a boisterous crowd past apartment buildings draped in vibrant colour, but Prandelli knew they had to get the job done at home.

Fiorentina had beaten Liverpool here but still they did not believe. They were intimidated by the reputation of a side who do not know when they are beaten; that win a Champions League final from 3-0 down and once scored 16 goals in three games when the heat was on.

They did not realise that the Liverpool of old have taken leave this season.

Fiorentina coach Cesare Prandelli

Happy days: Fiorentina coach Cesare Prandelli celebrates after his side's narrow win

Since the Champions League adopted a 32-team group stage format 11 seasons ago only two English clubs had failed to make it to the knock-out stage. Now Liverpool are the third.

A team and manager once considered to have this competition in their pockets will now be banished to the Europa League to play games on the night football forgot. Liverpool will juggle with the same fixture list as Fulham and Everton.

Ignore what Jamie Carragher says about it not being such a bad thing: the ignominy of joining the Thursday club is a humiliation that will not be easily forgotten. Remember when AC Milan went to Portsmouth? It was like seeing a once famous face reduced to doing pub gigs.

Michel Platini, the UEFA president, will be delighted his new competition has a star turn topping the bill, but Liverpool may have to get used to it.

Unless their Premier League form undergoes rapid improvement, the Europa League could be a natural home next season. Even this season it will feel strange not to hear the beautiful serenade of You’ll Never Walk Alone in the Champions League’s closing stages.

Now, of course, Fiorentina will visit Anfield as no more than tourists, the thrilling denouement to this Champions League campaign nothing more than a glorified sight-seeing expedition.

They will see Anfield, the way visitors with cameras seek out Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields.

And they may even have time to pop by Knotty Ash, still home to the greatest of Liverpool comics.

Dear old Doddy would have had the perfect sign off for Benitez and his diddy men in the Champions League this season.

Tatty bye everybody, he would say. Tatty bye.

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