Liverpool produced a sub-standard first-half performance against SC Braga to fall to a 1-0 defeat in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League Round of 16 tie. However the second-half introduction of Andy Carroll saw a vast improvement which will not only make Liverpool feel they can turn the tie around in the second leg next week, but also offers the prospect of a potentially fruitful partnership with the exciting Luis Suarez.
The Reds travelled to the picturesque Axa Stadium well aware of Braga’s prowess in European ties at home. The Portuguese side had already put Celtic out in the qualifying stages of the Champions League, and had beaten Arsenal 2-0 in the group stage back in October.
Kenny Dalglish knew that Braga would be a tougher prospect than the Sparta Prague side that his Liverpool side had struggled past in the previous round. With his attacking options limited by injuries and ineligibility, a lone striking role was handed to Sunday’s hat-trick hero Dirk Kuyt. Joe Cole and Raul Meireles lined up as support.
The opening moments set the tone for an insipid 45 minutes of play by Liverpool. The passing was laboured and at times wayward, with the home side pressing their visitors high up the pitch.
With their first incisive move Braga won the match-winning penalty. As the Portuguese side’s playmaker Mossoro made a break into the box, he drew a rash lunge from Greek defender Sotoris Kyrgiakos. The referee had no option but to give the spot-kick, which was drilled low into the bottom corner by the Brazilian forward, Alan.
Braga were unlucky not to get a second goal, when left-back Silvio hit a tremendous 30-yard dipping effort which crashed against Pepe Reina’s crossbar.
At the other end, Liverpool were being frustrated by Braga’s high defensive line, and an assistant referee who seemed keen to flag Kuyt offside at every opportunity. With Christian Poulsen putting in an anonymous performance in the centre of the park, it was obvious changes would be required in the second half if Liverpool were to find a way back into the game.
On the hour, Liverpool introduced their record signing. With Kuyt dropping into the hole behind Carroll, Liverpool immediately looked much more effective. Whilst not creating much in the way of clear-cut chances, the threat provided by the £35million man caused Braga some consternation, with centre-back Kaka lucky to escape punishment for an elbow to Carroll’s jaw in stoppage time.
Dalglish could not hide his disappointment at Liverpool’s first half showing. Talking to Channel 5’s Dave Beckett after the game he said: “The
Liverpool have the full week to prepare for the second leg, with a blank weekend ahead as the FA Cup takes centre stage.