Liverpool’s 2008-2009 campaign got underway with a match that players, staff and fans would rather forget. Belgian champions Standard Liege came out fighting in the first leg of this Champions League qualifier, determined to ensure Liverpool didn’t get an easy passage to the group stages. With the game ending 0-0, Liverpool know there’s a risk of embarrassment in the return in two weeks’ time.
Pepe Reina was man-of-the-match; saving a penalty and clawing a ball back from either off or over the line, depending on your point of view. Replays weren’t too conclusive, but without Reina in goal perhaps there’d be no need to look at replays to decide if it had crossed the line or not. The point of view that mattered on the night was that of the referee and his officials, and the ‘goal’ was ruled out.
The official’s point of view again differed from that of some watching the game when it came to the penalty incident. There was no disagreement that new signing Andrea Dossena had handled the ball on his competitive debut, but not everyone agreed it had happened inside the area. Again though the referee’s decision was final, and so Pepe Reina faced a penalty. Dante Bonfim was handed the duty and the chance to put Liege in front, but to beat Pepe Reina from the spot it needs to be a good kick, and this wasn’t.
Liverpool’s starting line-up wasn’t the one Rafa Benitez would have liked to have chosen, with Lucas, Javier Mascherano and Ryan Babel all out of contention, on international duty in Beijing for the Olympics. Steven Gerrard was on the bench due to injury, the idea being that he’d stay there unless absolutely necessary. His arrival on 67 minutes shows that Liege had Rafa worried. Had Rafa’s transfer plans gone as he’d have liked, Gareth Barry would no doubt have been in the starting line-up, and Xabi Alonso would have been training with another team’s squad. Instead the one-time England captain was with Aston Villa, and the Spaniard started in the green away kit of Liverpool alongside the youngster Plessis. Whether Barry would have been used centrally or on the left is something that can only be speculated over, but along with Babel’s Olympic absence and Fabio Aurelio’s injury, Rafa is lacking choices on the left.
Up front it would be difficult for Rafa to complain about his choices – his decision to start with over £40m worth of talent for his front two shows how much respect he had for the Belgians. It was Keane who made way for Gerrard mid-way through the second half. Jamie Carragher captained the side, starting alongside Daniel Agger who made his first competitive appearance since suffering a metatarsal injury early last season. Sami Hyypia was on the bench; Martin Skrtel was still in the treatment room.
Rafa knows that this side should have performed better, and should have returned to Anfield with the job half-done. After the game he was trying to look for the plusses, whilst acknowledging the shortcomings: “We were not playing well. The only positive thing you can take is that we didn’t concede a goal. We know we have to win at Anfield and have confidence we can. We will have had more games and more players. There were a lot of things that we were not doing well and everyone is upset that it was a bad performance.”
He admits that the two first-half incidents could have seen Liverpool go behind: “I think we were lucky not to concede. You never know what is going to happen when a game gets underway but clearly we didn’t play well. The performance was poor but the result was good. We didn’t concede away from home which is always important and to play the second-leg at Anfield could make a massive difference.”
There wasn’t a great deal the boss needed to tell his players after the match: “We didn’t have to say too much about the display in the dressing room because everybody already knew it wasn’t good. I was a little bit surprised because we were playing well in pre-season with a lot of confidence, but this game was different, it was difficult and I think the entire team didn’t play well. The strikers, midfielders and defenders didn’t play well and Pepe Reina was man of the match.”
Liege seemed to have worked out how Liverpool can struggle against the more physical sides, and their tactics worked: “They were very aggressive and we could not keep the ball. Our passes were bad and we always lost the first and second ball. In the first 20 minutes they were on top of us and after that we controlled it a bit more. In the second-half they started the same way and played more long balls and continued to win the first and second balls and if you don’t win them you will continue to be under pressure.”
Liverpool’s hopes of challenging for the league will be nothing more than hopes if they can’t deal with the sides that play the less-pretty version of the game. And they knew before the game kicked off that Liege were that type of opposition: “I told the players before, after watching their Super Cup game against Anderlecht, that it could be like this. We knew they could be very aggressive. They were organised and pressed well and it was difficult for us to keep the ball.”
The dispute over whether or not Rafa has been given enough money to spend is one that will play out all through the season – certainly whenever Liverpool struggle – and he hinted again that he wants more players in his squad: “We have a lot of players away or injured and the competition for the places needs to improve. Gerrard couldn’t start and he is a player who can change a game and if you have two or three players of this level on the pitch it is different. We were talking with the doctor before the match and we knew he couldn’t start and we were thinking maybe we could use him and in the end we did need him.”
He did admit that the competition for places will improve soon with the return of players from injury and international duty: “Fabio Aurelio and Skrtel have been training and when they are available we will have more options. Argentina play Holland in the Olympics too, so one player will return earlier. If you have more players competing for places it is better for the team.”
His opposite number, Standard Liege’s coach Laszlo Boloni, was of course delighted with the way the game turned out, other than a touch of disappointment about the disallowed goal: “Liverpool maybe came here asleep and not expecting this sort of game. Maybe, though, we have woken them up for the second leg, which will be much harder for us. We felt that if we did not lose this first leg, we would still be in with a chance. We know, though, that we still have to score and that could be the problem. But I want to praise my team. They attacked Liverpool from the start and when their goalkeeper pulled the ball back from behind the line, maybe the referee was asleep too.”
Standard Liege: Aragon, Dante, Dalmat, Defour, Mbokani, De Camargo, Mikulic (Nicaise, 90), Camozzato, Sarr, Fellaini, Witsel.
Unused subs: Devriendt, Goreux, Toama, Benko, Ingrao, Dembele.
Booked: Camozzato, Mikulic.
Liverpool: Reina, Arbeloa, Dossena, Carragher, Agger, Alonso, Plessis, Benayoun, Kuyt (El Zhar, 83), Keane (Gerrard, 67), Torres.
Unused subs: Cavalieri, Hyypia, Voronin, Pennant, Insua.
Referee: Tom Ovrebo (Norway).