Rafael Benitez’s nightmares are probably a harrowing sight. There will be images of Pippo Inzaghi wheeling away in celebration after his second goal in Athens in 2007, of a smiling Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson holding aloft the Premier League trophy, of a limping Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres and, as of Wednesday night in Lyon, of the blond ponytail flopping over the white No 10 shirt of Andriy Voronin as the Ukrainian forward lumbered towards goal in what seemed like the freedom of eastern France. One-on-one with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris in the 28th minute, Voronin could only side-foot his effort meekly at the France number one. Liverpool’s clearest opening of their must-win night was gone – the goal that their first half efforts had deserved didn’t come. It was to prove a vital miss.
Yet to pin the blame on Voronin for the situation that Liverpool find themselves in in Europe is to miss the bigger picture. The forward was – along with Sotirios Kyrgiakos – only making up the numbers in Lyon, they would never have played had others been available. The abject defeat in Fiorentina and those frantic, anxiety-filled final 20 minutes against the French side at Anfield are to blame for the predicament that the Reds find themselves in, with the desperate wasteland of European football – this season rebranded as the Europa League – on the horizon.
But it could all have been so different. The patched up, re-organised Liverpool were the better side at the Stade Gerland, imposing their game plan upon the best team in France and coming close to taking the lead three times in the opening half-hour. Even after the break they were rarely troubled from less than 30 yards out, and when Ryan Babel produced the most glorious explosion from his right boot it seemed as though yet another improbable, miraculous Benitez escape act was back in full swing. Yet, eight minutes later it laid it tatters when Lisandro Lopez – the most expensive player in French football history – capitalised on defensive hesitation to level the scores. It was a blow that was tough on the battling Javier Mascherano and Yossi Benayoun, that Babel’s brilliant goal shouldn’t have shared the scoresheet with and that the excellent Lucas didn’t deserve to witness. It was harsh – but such is life, such is football, and such is this season for Liverpool.
It is yet another irony of an increasingly perverse campaign that this most devastating of setbacks didn’t actually occur in a defeat. Lopez’ equaliser has placed everything in jeopardy – from the potential glory and riches of further Champions League progress to, inevitably, the future of the manager – but somewhere over the dim and distant horizon there remains a shaft of light. If Lyon avoid defeat at Fiorentina, thereby ensuring top spot in the group, then Liverpool – provided that they’ve recovered from their great depression to beat the not-so-great Debrecen – could be facing a winner-takes-all final-day clash with the Italians at Anfield – and surely every follower of European football knows how the Kop relishes those.
That it’s come to this is hugely regrettable, however, and Liverpool will have no-one to blame but themselves should they be watching on in envy when the second round of the competition is played in February. With the media vultures circling around Benitez – someone who they’ve been targeting since he first arrived in England in 2004 – every second is analysed and every movement of every player gets scrutinized. Whatever your feelings on the future of the Liverpool boss, he is now working in an almost impossible environment, one in which his largely irrelevant 85th minute decision to replace the shattered Fernando Torres with the fresh David Ngog gets dissected and held up as an indication of all that is wrong with his tenure.
One win in eight games is certainly an unacceptable stat for any Liverpool manager to have hanging over him, and while vast improvement is needed quickly if Benitez is to retain the support of even his most ardent followers (Monday night’s home game with Birmingham City has become one of the most important that Benitez, or any Liverpool boss, has faced in their reign – a sort of ‘trial by Kop’ if you will) it’s possible to suggest that the Reds’ on-pitch problems can simply be solved by an improving their defending. Liverpool have scored goals of bewildering quality in each of their last three matches, but they haven’t won any of them. Tighten up at the back and the great goals will lead to great victories. Small crumbs of optimism have to be grasped at every opportunity, or those ever-increasing Benitez nightmares could soon have some more company – alongside the fresh images of Voronin, Lisandro Lopez and the Europa League.