Liverpool’s season continued to spiral out of control as
they fell to another last-minute defeat at home to
Fiorentina. In a carbon copy of the fixture against Lyon
in October, Liverpool led through a goal from Yossi
Benayoun but a below-par performance was punished
by a late winner from the visiting team. The 2-1 result
was typical of a horrendous Champions League
campaign for the Reds, who were eliminated from the
tournament a fortnight ago and only had pride to play for.
The major attraction for fans was the full debut of Italian Alberto Aquilani, who joined the club injured in the summer. Rafa Benitez had revealed before the match that he was likely to finally start Aquilani against Fiorentina and indeed the former Roma player was given 75 minutes against his compatriots. Liverpool fans have been desperate to see the big-money signing, who cost £20m in August, make the starting line-up but the manager has been wary of rushing him back and has been cautious in using him.
This game was thought to be ideal for him though, with nothing at stake and a slower tempo than a Premier League match. The Kop roared their approval of the Italian when his name was announced but he struggled to make an impact on the game. Clearly short of match sharpness, his passing was poor at times and he lacked presence in midfield. He will need a run of games and increased confidence to reach his true level, but the fans were sympathetic towards him.
Liverpool only looked a threat after the introduction of fit-again Fernando Torres who, aided by youngster Dani Pacheco, worried the Fiorentina defence and created some of the team’s best chances. Steven Gerrard was again anonymous for large periods of the match and Liverpool lacked creativity on the flanks. Benitez had taken this opportunity to give some of his fringe players a run-out but the likes of Stephen Darby and Andrea Dossena failed to impress.
For the first time in their history Liverpool found themselves playing a European game that had no real purpose as progression to the next round was impossible. Never before has there been such a meaningless game in regards to qualification prospects. Liverpool will now play in the re-branded Europa League, and will be strong favourites to lift that trophy, but it is a level of competition the Reds never wanted to return to. During the latter days of Gerard Houllier and particularly throughout Benitez’s reign, Liverpool have been heavyweights in Europe’s top competition, regularly reaching the final stages.
However, Liverpool fans will have to get used to Europa League football for at least the rest of this season and maybe beyond if the team finish lower than fourth in the Premier League. The club will hope that fans still flock to Anfield in numbers despite the fact that visiting teams will not be of the calibre of Barcelona and Real Madrid. To their credit, more than 40,000 did turn out for the match against Fiorentina, which is a healthy attendance given the struggling ticket sales. You would be forgiven for thinking not quite so many were there though as Anfield was as quiet as it has ever been for most of the match, with the Kop only rousing themselves in stoppage time to sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in defiant response to Alberto Gilardino’s winning goal.
The manager must now attempt to raise spirits ahead of the visit of Arsenal on Sunday, a game which Liverpool need to win to get back on track in the battle for a top-four position. While the defeat to Fiorentina might be meaningless in terms of qualification and progression, it is another major dent to the team’s frail morale at a time when Liverpool thought they had turned the corner with the recent win over Everton. Expect the atmosphere to be rather more intense when the Gunners visit Anfield for what is far from a meaningless game.
By Chris Shaw
Chief Sports Reporter
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