Gilardino puts seal on Reds' dismal campaign

Liverpool 1 Fiorentina 2
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It was teeming with rain last night when Liverpool provided a signature note for their entire, wretched Champions League campaign. Two injury-time goals in the course of one group stage might seem like carelessness but the third, which sent Fiorentina through as Group E winners, is symptomatic of the defensive malfunction which has made Liverpool's high aspirations in this tournament such a delusion of grandeur.

In the scheme of things the goal, which followed Lyons' injury-time strikes in successive group fixtures this autumn, affects nothing. Liverpool, already eliminated, were seeking what meagre consolations they could. The promising, combative 76 minutes played by Alberto Aquilani certainly offered one before the other Alberto – Gilardino – spoilt the effect in the 93rd minute. But never in their rich European history have Liverpool lost successive home games in European competition and this night only restored the impression that the club, with three wins in 14, are a very long way from where they want to be.

Graeme Souness went too far in the apocalyptic vision, painted from a television studio, of a club in "meltdown – hundreds of millions of pounds in debt and if they don't get into the Champions League the banks will be knocking on the door." But for the best sense of the place Liverpool now occupy it was instructive to observe Benitez, insisting in the face of incontrovertible evidence that Gilardino's winner was not symptomatic of poor concentration in his side, and his opposite number Cesare Prandelli speak so eloquently about what it means to win at Anfield and of the quality of "tranquillity" which the Champions League has engendered in his side.

There may be no tranquillity in Europa League for Liverpool just yet. They have been told they will not be seeded, which means they may meet Juventus, Marseilles or the awkward Rubin Kazan when the draw is made in Nyon a week tomorrow. Meanwhile, Benitez believes Liverpool's season can start again when Arsenal arrive here on Saturday. "We could be nearer the top of the table, nearer our rivals. It could be the beginning of new options new season," he said. But the conditional tense in that sentence is extreme, considering the state of that defence.

The winning goal was dreadful – Juan Vargas deceiving debutant Stephen Darby with his turn of pace and racing down the left to cross low for Gilardino, who had been left free to tap in at will. But the vulnerability had been there all evening, from the moment Daniel Agger's poor back pass left Diego Cavalieri scrambling to clear a ball which could have rebounded in off Mario Santana inside 10 minutes. It comes to something when the fifth placed side in Serie A, 11 points off the top, are forcing Cavalieri into three immaculate saves in one half of football at Anfield.

Liverpool sought what consolations there were to be found from the first dead rubber of the Benitez era, manufacturing an atmosphere by presenting Steven Gerrard with a commemorative plaque on the pitch before the game to mark his 500th game for the club. "One of the all time brilliant footballers" was the way he was introduced. Not a Europa League player, then.

The Florentine fans' exuberance was a reminder of a road not taken in Europe for Liverpool, though there was certainly one Italian to take pleasure in. Aquilani offered grounds for immediate encouragement, detailed to a holding midfield role alongside Javier Mascharano while Gerrard maintained the more advanced position up ahead which the Italian is ultimately expected to assume. He bounced into a fifth minute challenge with Lorenzo de Silvestri which released the ball to his compatriot Andrea Dossena. It set the tone for Aquilani's evening of quick, forward passes – not a part of Mascherano's repertoire – and his neat touches. He worked the yards, too; box to box and demanding possession. He doesn't look like a player who will struggle with the Premier League.

Benitez was non-committal last night on whether Aquilani might face Arsenal but Torres suggested in his own 25 minutes display that he is ready to do so. The way he beat Gianluca Comotto and cut past Riccardo Montolivo to cross from the left – Dossena should have met it with his head and scored – reveals a man who is full of training time. His back heel to Liverpool teenager Daniel Pacheco, whose speculative early strike forced a fine save from Sebastien Frey, was another reminder of what he brings.

The general impression was that even with Pepe Reina and Jamie Carragher rested, Liverpool would take something from the game. They led, against the run of play, after Gerrard's 42nd minute free kick, won after Manuel Pasqal had felled him, was glanced in in off the right side of Frey's post by Yossi Benayoun's head. But while Liverpool attacked in fits and starts, Fiorentina did so as a collective. The tournament's joint top scorers, with Real Madrid, deserved their 63rd minute equaliser after a vibrant right to left move which saw the ball shifted right to left, from Gianluca Comotto to Alberto Gilardino and on to Marton Jorgensen who delivered a powerful right foot shot to Cavalieri's right. The worst of the home truths were yet to set in.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Cavalieri; Darby, Skrtel, Agger, Insua; Mascherano (Aurelio, 86), Aquilani (Pacheco, 76); Benayoun, Gerrard, Dossena; Kuyt (Torres, 65). Substitutes not used: Reina (gk), Kyrgiakos, Carragher, Spearing.

Fiorentina (4-4-1-1): Frey; Comotto, Natali, Kroldrup, Pasqual; De Silvestri (Castillo, 83), Donadel, Montolivo, Jorgensen (Vargas, 71); Santana (Marchionni, 71); Gilardino. Substitutes not used: Avramov, Seculin, Aya, Carraro.

Referee: D Skomina (Slovenia).

Group E

Results: Liverpool 1 Debrecen 0, Lyons 1 Fiorentina 0; Debrecen 0 Lyons 4, Fiorentina 2 Liverpool 0; Liverpool 1 Lyons 2, Debrecen 3 Fiorentina 4; Lyons 1 Liverpool 1, Fiorentina 5 Debrecen 2; Fiorentina 1 Lyons 0, Debrecen 0 Liverpool 1; Liverpool 1 Fiorentina 2, Lyons 4 Debrecen 0.