Liverpool humbled by Hazard's late sucker punch
Lille 1 Liverpool 0
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Friday 12 March 2010
Just when Lyons' heroics in the Bernabeu had seemed to cast Liverpool's Champions League elimination at that club's hands in a more sympathetic light, Lille provided a reminder of precisely where Rafael Benitez's side stands in the European scheme of things last night.
There was a dreadful sense of déjà vu about the way they were sent packing out of northern France; yet another late goal to go with those conceded in both Champions League ties with Lyons, which had landed Benitez's team in front of an 18,000 crowd on a pitch resembling Formby beach in the first place. But the memorably named 19-year-old Belgian Eden Hazard, who leaves them fretting about next Thursday's second leg at Anfield – and how hazardous he was, also provided a reminder of what the even smallest quantity of energy and verve can do for a team.
Liverpool relied on Fernando Torres for theirs and got it. His formidable bursts of pace suggest that the Spaniard is no longer in recuperation from injury. "Maybe his pace is coming back," Benitez said and it was the one bright spot. But where has that great telepathic understanding with Steven Gerrard gone? A year ago on Sunday, Gerrard (right) and Torres took apart Manchester United in a memorable 4-1 win at Old Trafford with a ferocity which made the continent shudder. Last night, there was rarely a glance between them, the abiding images of Torres being a 20-yard run to hustle Ludovic Obraniak, then Jamie Carragher restraining him as the sap rose. The Spanish striker was booked for dissent a few minutes later.
The Lille goalkeeper Mickael Landreau had a large part to play in the outcome of the game, saving acrobatically when Torres leapt to head Glen Johnson's cross down towards goal just before half time, pummelling away a crashing shot just after the break from Ryan Babel and thrusting out a leg to block when the Dutchman took the last of several passes he and Torres had interchanged, only to spurn the best chance of the night.
Too many opportunities not taken and then an 85th-minute goal conceded to Hazard, whose floated free-kick into a crowded area bounced in front of Liverpool's goalkeeper Pepe Reina on the uneven surface and sailed in. "It was a late goal but not one in the last minute," said Benitez, rejecting comparisons with late goals conceded to Lyons and Fiorentina, who also won at the death at Anfield when Champions League qualification was gone. "The ref was giving too many fouls and it is not easy. The ball bounced in front of the keeper."
Benitez is certainly a man in a hurry to get through ties like this. His pre-match press conference here on Wednesday night lasted precisely four minutes and he did not even stay around to see the pitch. There was a forlorn spectacle when he and his players finally dropped in to cast eyes around the stadium yesterday morning. Babel's tweet said everything. "Tonite's pitch!" read the caption on his pictures.
But suddenly, to go with the knowledge that he cannot afford any slip-ups at home to Portsmouth on Monday, the Europa League is something for Benitez to fret about. Liverpool must attack against Ligue 1's top-scoring side but are all too aware on last night's evidence that there are threats in Hazard, Pierre-Alain Frau and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who crashed a shot against the outside of Reina's left post four minutes after Hazard's goal
"It depends on first minutes," Benitez said of the second leg. "Sometimes you play well and score an early goal, you can manage the game. If we have the same mentality as today we can beat anyone." That kind of assertion would have echoed across Europe a year ago but now his audience spans the Europa League. It's a competition sponsored by the Spanish carmaker Seat, incidentally. Benitez just wants to find the ignition.
Lille (4-1-2-3) Landreau; Beria, Chedjou, Rami, Emerson; Mavuba; Balmont, Cabaye (Dumont, 73); Hazard, Frau (Aubameyang, 77), Obraniak (Touré, 83). Substitutes not used: Butelle (gk), Vandam, Souare, Souquet
Liverpool (4-2-3-1) Reina; Johnson, Agger, Carragher, Insua; Lucas, Mascherano; Kuyt (El Zhar, 88) Gerrard, Babel (Riera, 73); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Kelly
Referee: A Larsen (Denmark).
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