Benitez will look back in anger at defence

Defeat by Fiorentina exposed Liverpool's main flaw this season: their rearguard cracks too easily under pressure
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The Independent Football

Beneath the placid demeanour and the polished post-match interviews, conducted effortlessly in Italian, was a man who had raged like never before in Florence on Tuesday night. Rafael Benitez's fury during the half-time interval of Liverpool's Champions League tie against Fiorentina was of a kind the side had not witnessed before, Fabio Aurelio revealed in its aftermath. "I think that was the most annoyed we have seen the manager," said Aurelio, who knew him at Valencia, too. "I think that's why you saw a better performance in the second."

The Spaniard's mood will not have brightened when he observes the rest of Tuesday night's Group E action. After being beaten by two Stevan Jovetic goals at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, the 19-year-old Montenegrin striker making a name for himself across Europe, the bad news for Liverpool is that there are more Balkan terrors ahead. The talk of French football yesterday was another 19-year-old – Miralem Pjanic, Lyons' Bosnian midfielder who overran the Hungarian champions Debrecen in a way that Benitez's side did not at Anfield two weeks ago. Lyons won 4-0 to top the group and the DVD Benitez will watch of Pjanic setting up two goals and scoring from a sublime free-kick for Claude Puel's side will not be edifying.

Steven Gerrard's diagnosis of the anaemic first-half display which saw Liverpool fall to their first group stage defeat since the 2-1 reverse at Besiktas, which left them on the precipice of elimination two years ago, suggests simply that a lack of intensity was their ruin. "We didn't do what we usually do well away in Europe. We usually play with a high tempo, pass the ball well and play really well on the counter-attack," Gerrard said. "Those things weren't there tonight and it was all over the pitch, from front to back."

But his analysis seemed back to front. The abiding image of "Jo-Jo", as Fiorentina knows its £8m teenage acquisition, is Jovetic racing onto Cristiano Zanetti's threaded pass to score while Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel both stood with arms aloft for an offside flag that never came. Their struggle to contend with the Viola striker provides the measure of Benitez's side. The three decent teams they have played this season – Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and Fiorentina – have dismantled their defence. It is the weaker sides –Hull City, Stoke City and Burnley – who have been well beaten, while West Ham, who are struggling, deserved more than a narrow, Fernando Torres-inspired defeat.

Aurelio, billeted in the holding defensive role Gerrard was released from on Tuesday, was more candid about the underlying problems, the consequences, as he sees it, of Liverpool's more offensive outlook, in which full-backs Glen Johnson and Emiliano Insua push on far more, providing space for opposing strikers. "It's important to get something against the top sides," Aurelio said. "We are scoring more goals at the moment but you always need to keep improving if you want to win trophies. At the moment we are conceding too much space and we need to keep working hard on that to get better and put it right."

That Stamford Bridge is Liverpool's next destination hardly provides reassurance, considering their defence's propensity to fold at set pieces. There will be plenty of encouragement for Chelsea's Ricardo Carvalho and John Terry to go up in support of Didier Drogba on Sunday. The defeat in Tuscany also stores up an awkward 15 days for Benitez from the end of next month. Sandwiched between the two Lyons games are the league encounter with Manchester United and a Carling Cup trip to Arsenal.

Benitez hopes the hamstring strain Javier Mascherano sustained against Hull last Saturday will have healed by Sunday and that he will be able to offer the defensive reinforcements needed when Johnson has headed off on one of his sorties. But Mascherano cannot solve the problem alone. With Daniel Agger injured, there is still no centre-back to challenge the apparent divine right of Skrtel and Carragher to a place on the team sheet and no one knows how much hope to place in the first appearance of Alberto Aquilani in the role Xabi Alonso vacated.

One European defeat is not a catastrophe. The back-to-back games against Lyons will give Liverpool a better sense of how far they can go in Europe. The group is wide open – and the gulf between France's best and Europe's elite was revealed by the scale of Lyons' 5-2 defeat to Barcelona last season.

Gerrard says he will be ready for Jovetic when Fiorentina arrive at Anfield on 9 December. "I hadn't seen much of him before but I had heard good things," he said. The question is, will Liverpool's defence?

Slow starters: The Reds' goal leak

Liverpool's defensive problems struck again on Tuesday. Of 12 goals conceded this season in 10 games nine have been in the first half.

First-half goals conceded:

16 Aug Tottenham (a) Prem, lost 2-1, Assou-Ekotto (44 mins)

24 Aug Aston Villa (h) Prem, lost 1-3, Own goal (34), C Davies (45)

29 Aug Bolton (a) Prem, won 2-3, K Davies (33)

19 Sep West Ham (a) Prem, won 2-3, Diamanti pen (29), C Cole (45)

26 Sep Hull (h) Prem, won 6-1, Geovanni (15)

29 Sep Fiorentina (a) CL, lost 2-0, Jovetic (28, 37)

Liverpool continue to struggle with their much-hyped zonal marking system, letting in four goals when employing the tactic.

They are also vulnerable in the two minutes before and after half-time, conceding five in that period.

Ben Araujo

Group E

Liverpool results so far: 16 Sept Liverpool 1 Debrecen 0; 29 Sept Fiorentina 2 Liverpool 0.

Liverpool remaining games: 20 Oct Lyons (h), 4 Nov Lyons (a), 24 Nov Debrecen (a), 9 Dec Fiorentina (h).

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