Tradition dictates that, come a European night at Anfield, an encouraging Liverpool win will ensue. If only life was always this simple for Rafael Benitez.
Riled by constant criticism of a Premiership campaign that seven away games without success has hardly discouraged, the Liverpool manager had prepared for the first-place play-off against PSV Eindhoven in Group C by demanding respect for a list of achievements rivalled only by Jose Mourinho in the past two years. The Spaniard can now add Liverpool's highest points total in the group stages of the Champions' League to any future defence of his credentials, a feat claimed courtesy of a flawless home record and second-half goals from Steven Gerrard and Peter Crouch as the 2005 winners secured pole position in a section that offered minimal opposition to their European pedigree.
While Group C paints a comforting picture for Benitez, albeit one that illuminates their split personality on the domestic front, a heavy price was extracted from Liverpool for a scoreline that avenged the result that the PSV coach, Ronald Koeman, enjoyed with his former club, Benfica, here in March. Injuries to Mark Gonzalez, Xabi Alonso and Jermaine Pennant took a touch of gloss from a deserved win, and they may yet have serious repercussions for a Premiership campaign in urgent need of more comforting outings like this.
Benitez's English vocabulary has not improved dramatically in the two years since exchanging Valencia for Merseyside but this was the night when he came to appreciate the phrase "Damned if you do, damned if you don't". Condemned for rotating in 99 games prior to the previous European outing against Bordeaux, the Liverpool manager resisted what was the understandable temptation to rest key players ahead of three League games in eight days and was punished by the loss of 75 per cent of his preferred midfield before the 79th minute.
First to fall was Alonso when, sold criminally short by Gonzalez, the Spanish playmaker was forced into an eye-watering 50-50 challenge with the PSV midfielder Csaba Feher and suffered a painful boot into the hip for his efforts. The poor pass from the Chilean international was one of many from those in red to initially irk the Anfield crowd, their impatience with their summer signings becoming manifest until Gonzalez himself joined the casualty list following an impressive run and cross down the left that resulted only in a torn hamstring. Pennant would later complete a hat-trick for the stretcher-bearers when he collapsed suffering spasms in his hamstring.
"I am really pleased with the victory but the price was a dead leg for Xabi, a serious problem for Gonzalez and a hamstring problem for Pennant," confirmed Benitez. "We don't know yet how long Xabi and Jermaine will be out for, but Mark is two or three weeks at the very least. Losing so many players made the game very difficult to manage, but I thought the players were extremely professional."
With midfield increasingly bereft, Benitez had added reason to embrace the dominant, goalscoring contribution of his captain, Gerrard, from central midfield. When play was not interrupted by medics, the difficulties Liverpool are yet to iron out of their performances this season were evident as promising, one-touch football was regularly betrayed by a poor final ball and ponderous movement in attack. Throughout, however, Gerrard cajoled his team as they struggled to fashion even one clear sight of Gomes' goal during the first half, but he was suitably rewarded with his second goal in 20 appearances this season to give Liverpool the lead.
Prospering from a Kenny Dalglish-like use of the posterior by Dirk Kuyt, Gerrard delivered an accomplished finish once the Dutchman had pierced his compatriots' defence with a beautifully weighted pass. "Stevie played really well," said his manager. "But like any good player, he can play better. It was important to see him scoring though, that will give him and the team a lot more confidence."
Crouch extinguished late pressure from PSV in the final minute when he rose to head home a second assist from Kuyt from almost on the goal-line and, with the trip to the Ataturk Stadium next month now meaningless, Liverpool can wallow in the memories of their last visit to Istanbul - the unforgettable Champions' League final of 2005 - rather than exert themselves unnecessarily.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise; Pennant (Bellamy, 78), Gerrard, Alonso (Zenden, 21), Gonzalez (Garcia, 36); Crouch, Kuyt. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Hyypia, Fowler, Paletta.
PSV Eindhoven (4-2-3-1): Gomes; Kromkamp, Da Costa, Alex, Salcido; Simons, Mendez (Beerens, 80); Feher (Tardelli, 68), Afellay, Farfan; Kone. Substitutes not used: Moens (gk), Reiziger, Cocu, Addo, Lamey.
Referee: D Messina (Italy).Reuse content