So who was it who said that, after their consistent involvement in the Champions League in Rafael Benitez’s six seasons in charge, that Liverpool’s participation in the Europa League would be dull? A white hot night in Lisbon, three goals (one of them a sublime back-heeled effort from a central defender), two penalties, one sending off, an eccentric millionaire Swedish referee and more firecrackers than on your average Guy Fawkes night later, and the entertainment was in plentiful supply.
A 2-1 away defeat to Benfica – who would prove to be a comfortably better side than any of the three that Liverpool faced in this season’s Champions League – would not have been considered disastrous even before kick-off in the Estadio da Luz last night. It would not have been thought of as ideal when Daniel Agger – who has been forlornly searching for his first goal of the season with increasing regularity in recent weeks – produced a moment of inspiration to put the Reds 1-0 up inside 10 minutes. The Dane’s clever flick from Steven Gerrard’s expertly placed free kick may still prove to be the defining moment of the tie, as it is down to Liverpool’s excellent defending with 10 men – plus some luck – that the 31st minute sending off of Ryan Babel has not got that title this morning.
According to referee Jonas Eriksson – who can apparently boast a £6m fortune due to the sale of a media company in his native Sweden, and so who could probably do without the fuss of overseeing a football match in front of 60,000 baying folk from Lisbon – putting your hand over someone’s mouth is a greater example of ‘violent conduct’ than a short, sharp kick through the back of a player which gets nowhere near the ball. Perhaps he is right – maybe Luisao has a particularly sensitive chin, or maybe the referee is a firm believer in freedom of speech and so objected to Babel’s attempts at quietening the Brazilian defender, but surely the official will be embarrassed when he witnesses the two incidents – Luisao’s crunching tackle from behind on Fernando Torres and Babel’s fairly tame reaction – and sees the difference in the severity of both. Babel was foolish – an April fool if you like – but to get a red card for that offence is laughable, and it was backs against the wall from thereon in.
That the Reds made it to half time still ahead was largely down to the ineptitude in front of goal of Oscar Cardozo, but the giant Paraguayan was not going to carry on missing, even if he had to be given two opportunities from twelve yards to finally hit the target. The decisions for both penalties were largely simple ones – even if the call against Jamie Carragher could have gone either way – but the referee had to be helped out by the small army of officials available in this competition when giving both penalties and on many other occasions on the night. In truth it was probably for the best – if the Swede’s decision to book Pepe Reina for wasting a massive six seconds of time was anything to go by, he needed all the help he could get. Perhaps he was distracted by the multitude of firecrackers going off behind Reina’s goal, one of which nearly deafened an official. Sanctions must surely follow.
A defeat then – but hardly an overly damaging one. Just like Manchester United will be when they face Bayern Munich in their European second leg, Liverpool will be confident at just 2-1 down (although apparently United’s striker got injured on Tuesday, not that much has been said about it). Anfield will be rocking for next week’s clash, and there is no reason why the Reds cannot overturn their deficit just like they did against Lille in the last round. The oddities and explosions of Lisbon need not be fatal to Liverpool’s Europa League hopes, but it will take a special effort to turn the tie around. There is domestic business to take care of first however.
Sunday’s trip to Birmingham will be a tough one. The Blues have drawn home matches with Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City this season, while the only reason they drew at Anfield earlier in the campaign was because David Ngog dived in their penalty area. Tired after playing an hour in Lisbon with 10 men last night, the Reds will need to be on their game if they want to take anything from Birmingham on what could prove an important weekend in the race for the Champions League places. The lack of a bizarre Scandinavian official, explosions from the stands and questionable red cards at St. Andrew’s would be welcomed with open arms.