jThe final act of a demoralising Champions League campaign for Liverpool provided a fitting way to go. Effectively relegated by stoppage time goals home and away to Lyon, last night it was the turn of Fiorentina’s Alberto Gilardino to inflict last-gasp defeat on Rafael Benítez and condemn Liverpool to two successive home losses for the first time in their European history. Uefa has also confirmed Liverpool will not be seeded in the draw for the Europa League knockout phase next Friday. Ignominy follows
So much of Liverpool’s farewell to European football’s top table was depressingly apt for Benítez, who entered the Anfield trophy room to conduct his inquest into the defeat moments after Graeme Souness had spoken of a potential “meltdown” should the club fail to qualify for the competition next season. This experience is not one they will want to revisit.
There was hope for Liverpool last night. Alberto Aquilani made a full and promising Liverpool debut four months after his £20m arrival from Roma, Fernando Torres returned from the hernia that had contributed to the team’s rut and
Daniel Pacheco, the most exciting graduate among the club’s often maligned youth system, made a late introduction that brimmed with confidence and pedigree. But then, as Gilardino reminded all when he tapped in Juan Vargas’s cross after the substitute had torn away from debutant Stephen Darby, hope was lost to Liverpool in this campaign long ago.
Having kissed and hugged almost every member of the opposing team before kick off, Aquilani demonstrated he can inject more adventure into Liverpool without touching the ball. The midfielder’s first act after the opening whistle was to move 10 metres in front of Javier Mascherano, who has been accustomed to forming a double-bolt with Lucas Leiva this season, and no doubt Steven Gerrard will relish the extra support over time.
Benítez envisaged a midfield line of Mascherano-Aquilani-Gerrard as the solution to the seven Anfield draws that arguably cost Liverpool the title last season, although that was before the true extent of the Italian’s recuperation period became known. His first touches against Fiorentina must have heightened the manager’s regret at the delay.
Instinctive and, more importantly, accurate passes indicated why Benítez hand-picked Aquilani to replace Xabi Alonso once Real Madrid met the £30m asking price. A back-heel while in full stride to Gerrard drew rapturous applause from the Kop although there was evidence of tiredness when the Italy international repeated the trick but found only Per Kroldrup. He then compounded the error by allowing the former Everton player to stroll past into the Liverpool area where he was halted by Martin Skrtel.
Aquilani helped bring greater urgency and movement to the Liverpool attack before fading after eight months without a competitive start. His promise initially helped sate an impressive 40,863 crowd, given the circumstances, to depart ahead at the interval.
Liverpool had survived several scares in the first half, notably when the reserve goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri saved well from Lorenzo De Silvestri and Riccardo Montolivo, both from successive Martin Jorgensen corners, and when the latter sliced over from Gilardino’s cut-back. The lead arrived courtesy of the incisiveness Fiorentina had lacked, Yossi Benayoun getting the faintest flick on a Gerrard free-kick and glancing a header in off Sébastien Frey’s far post in the 43rd minute.
Mascherano’s energy and tenacity belonged to a grander occasion and underpinned a dominant start to the second half by Liverpool. The visitors were forced into several last-ditch clearances as Benítez’s side began to prosper from the flanks and Daniel Agger was millimetres from converting another free-kick by Gerrard.
The Liverpool manager increased the surprising feel-good factor when he summonsed Torres from his stretching exercises in front of the Kop. Before the final instructions had been relayed, however, Fiorentina caught Liverpool cold on the break to level. Gianluca Comotto instigated the attack from right-back, Gilardino slipped the ball behind an exposed home defence and Jorgensen shot low beyond Cavalieri into the far corner. Benítez spun away from Torres’s ear in disgust at the lapse, but his misery was not yet over.
There was an increased conviction to Fiorentina’s play as they sensed the victory that would enable them to win a Champions League group for the first time. Gilardino delivered the fitting curtain call for allNo tags for this post.