Liverpool team for the big occasion undone by the fear factor
Thursday 05 November 2009
What was so nearly a victory achieved through tactical acumen and discipline, tremendous hard work and a moment of inspiration was denied Liverpool by an age-old emotion: fear.
That same emotion affected both teams. Lyons, knowing they only needed a point to progress, had sat back and allowed Liverpool to dominate in Stade Gerland. Only after the visitors scored did they attack in numbers. Simultaneously Liverpool fell back, anxious to protect the lead they had spent so long trying to gain – "we hold what we have", the philosophy behind retreating defences for generations, at all levels of the game.
The problem is it invites pressure, which is why you see managers on the touchline urging their back four forward as they sit deeper and deeper. Last night it also invited trouble. Lisandro Lopez, perplexingly cast out to the left wing for much of last night's match, is not one to spurn the opportunity Liverpool's centre-halves handed him in the last minute.
The makeshift centre-half pairing of Daniel Agger and Sotiris Kyrgiakos always looked a vulnerable duo, especially to the pace of Lyons' frontline, but Rafael Benitez knew he had to risk them being exposed if Fernando Torres was not to be isolated. Liverpool had to advance in numbers, and play high. It was a risk: Agger was booked for hauling back Bafétimbi Gomis after the teenager had turned him, and Kyrgiakos should have been, but it was one that paid off until his team took the lead and caution infected their minds.
With the back four advanced, and both full-backs stepping on, Lucas, Javier Macherano, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun formed a tight midfield that was able to pass around Lyons. This would have reaped reward earlier had Torres not been struggling for fitness, and Voronin for form.
It was no surprise when the latter made way for Ryan Babel, but it was when the mercurial Babel scored. His moment of inspiration was, perhaps, the only way through as Lyons were by then defending with nine men behind the ball. Benayoun and others tried to trick their way through but when a defence sits so deep the solution is often a target man, like Peter Crouch, one of the forwards Benitez has released. But if a team has enough pressure, and enough quality, a breakthrough is always likely, as Manchester United demonstrated against CSKA the previous night. Unfortunately, Lyons proved it as well.
At Liverpool "must-win" games come along as frequently as boardroom squabbles. The saving grace is that they frequently win them. They so very nearly did last night but now there are two more must-win games. The problem for Liverpool is that Lyons must win one of them, in Florence in three weeks. On the evidence of last night that does not look very likely.
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