If Liverpool’s Champions League ambitions for this season died in Florence two weeks ago when Fiorentina beat Lyon, then get ready for the wake – and it’s a wake that the killers are attending. The Reds’ home game against the Italians on Wednesday night will represent the last time that a top level European game will be played on Merseyside for the time being at least, and it’s sure to be an odd night.
In a stadium synonymous with plenty of great European evenings – nights full of raucous noise and passionate fervour – the prospect of denying Fiorentina top spot in the group is unlikely to generate much enthusiasm amongst a crowd that will find it difficult to discover motivation. The same could be said of the players too – as in truth this is about as meaningless a game as you can get during a season – but hopefully for those paying to get in to Anfield on a cold December night, professional pride will prevail. After all, any win for Liverpool should be welcomed with open arms at the moment, even one in a game such as this.
Given the choice, all supporters would have preferred three points at Ewood Park on Saturday, but they slipped through Liverpool’s fingers like so many others this season. A turgid first half was followed by an improved showing in the second, and while David N’Gog can have few complaints about the missed chance that could have won the Reds the game. His one legitimate gripe – that the ball took a vicious bobble from Glen Johnson’s cross – certainly has some truth to it, and would have had Everton supporters everywhere nodding in agreement after the manner of Liverpool’s opening goal in the Merseyside derby. As we discussed last week; Football? It’s all a game of luck.
It’s a strange game too, as the Reds have seemingly been determined to prove all season. In between varying stages of crises they’ve played some excellent football at home, swatting aside Stoke, Burnley and Hull and scoring 14 goals in the process. They’ve beaten their two bitterest rivals without conceding. After being knocked out of the Champions League two weeks ago despite actually winning their game, it would be no surprise if Liverpool turned in a terrific performance against Fiorentina tomorrow, winning and winning well. They’re actually on a six-game unbeaten run – their joint best this season – and have kept three consecutive clean sheets – their best run of the campaign. But to say that they have performed anywhere near their level in any of the last few games would be wrong in the extreme. This is the Liverpool House of Mirrors; nothing is the way it seems.
The Fiorentina game’s most interesting aspect – and a reason for you to watch it tomorrow night – looks likely to be the inclusion of Alberto Aquilani from the start for the first time in his Liverpool career. It has been six weeks since the Italian climbed off the bench at the Emirates Stadium and very nearly kept the Reds in the Carling Cup. In the time since he’s appeared far too late to have any sort of impact in matches against Birmingham and Debrecen, and a good performance tonight could finally assure Rafael Benitez that his summer signing has picked up the levels of fitness required in order to compete regularly with the rigours of the Premier League. That the Roman Aquilani should kickstart his bid to do this against a team from Florence adds yet another dose of irony to a campaign that was scarcely in need of another one.
It is easy to sympathise with Benitez’ attitude in his treatment of the Italian; a gifted midfielder who frequently struggled with injury during his time in Serie A. Both the player and – eventually – his former club admitted a mistreatment of his ankle injury, and while whether or not he proves to be a success looks likely to be a battle that could determine Benitez’ future at the club. Perhaps the Spaniard’s main crime has been in trusting the remaining members of his squad too much in the wake of Aquilani’s absence. Believing that Liverpool could cope without another international-class playmaker in their midfield behind Steven Gerrard may have proved to be one of the manager’s biggest mistakes at the club. However it’s only fair that he now be judged with the Italian in the team from the start. A fully-fit Aquilani could prove to be the catalyst that the Reds need. If tomorrow night proves to be the first stride on that long road then supporters certainly won’t be describing the evening as a meaningless exercise, far from it.