A second successive Champions League defeat – Besiktas taking full toll of the visitors' defensive frailties to win 2-1 in Istanbul last night – leaves Liverpool facing an embarrassing early exit from the competition and Rafael Benitez facing the sternest test yet of his incumbency.
A grim-looking Benitez put a brave face on his side's defeat before a passionate home crowd at the Inonu stadium, which comes off the back of a home to defeat at Marseilles and leaves Liverpool bottom of Group A with a solitary point. He was armed with a string of statistics about Liverpool's superiority – from their 28 shots on goal to their 56 per cent of possession – as he reflected on an other unconvincing display from his expensively assembled squad. "There's no explanation when you have 28 attempts away from home and cannot win. You can hope for better," he said.
But there was no disguising Liverpool's palpable failure to manufacture chances and only after Peter Crouch was introduced in the last five minutes did Besiktas looked genuinely rattled. The young Dutch midfielder Ryan Babel provided the only consistent threat.
Benitez insisted there were good reasons for not bringing on Crouch earlier and instead persisting with Andrei Voronin and Dirk Kuyt. "We needed very offensive players. The forwards' movement was very good," said Benitez. But it was Crouch, causing aerial problems from his arrival in the game's closing stages, who supplied the ball which Steven Gerrard headed home to set up a thrilling last five minutes to the game.
By then Besiktas' enterprising Brazilian striker Bobo had met captain Ibrahim Uzulmez's through ball outside the box in the 81st minute, to put the hosts ahead 2-0. This, after the Turkish side had taken the lead in the 13th minute when Serdar Ozkan's shot was deflected into the net by Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia for an own-goal.
Liverpool's best hope of advancing appears to be winning their remaining three fixtures – starting with the return match against Besiktas in two weeks' time – and hoping Marseilles, who top the group, lose to Porto and beat Besiktas. Dependent on other results, that might mean that beating Marseilles by two goals will enable them to progress.
Benitez, whose next test is against Arsenal on Sunday, played down any suggestion that the defeat is a major blow for him. "These situations in football can happen," he said. "We have to keep doing the right things and see what happens. We can't do anything more. The performance was OK.
"The first 12 minutes we had three chances and we conceded a goal in the 13th minute. It's bad luck with the first goal and after that things were really difficult. We were trying to do everything."
Benitez has evidently not discounted hopes of Liverpool progressing. He believes that the 1-1 draw between Marseilles and Porto in the group's other game last night leaves other sides within Liverpool's reach.
But in reality, Liverpool look highly likely to exit a tournament which they have so dominated in the last few years.
"I'm really pleased with the performance of the team," a defiant Benitez said. "We were attacking and they were counter-attacking. We knew that we needed to win, now it is much more clear that we need to win our last three games. We have to just keep doing the right things and see what happens."Reuse content