Ngog strike not enough as Liverpool face grim reality

Debrecen 0 Liverpool 1
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The Independent Football

The travelling contingent cheered the warm down around the pitch but the Liverpool players could barely lift their eyes towards them last night. Javier Mascherano flashed a wave but the rest quickly trundled on; a squad most obviously devastated – their agonies in the tunnel as they watched the dying moments of the Fiorentina/Lyons game revealed that much – but also vanquished in a way which summed up their Champions League campaign. Drab, dreary and ultimately, in the late evening rain of Budapest, desolate.

Rafael Benitez tried to talk it away, insisting that it was the two injury time equalisers handed to Lyons in successive fixtures which left Liverpool in this mess to start with, but that was a highly narrow interpretation of the past two-and-half months. Four goals in the group stage is the killer statistic.

There were forces working against Benitez all of last night. The fact it took Lyons 47 minutes just to register a shot on target will not aid the process of Franco-Spanish relations this morning, and the Hungarians didn't exactly help by delivering an immediate tannoy announcement of Fiorentina's 28th minute penalty at a stadium 256 miles away. Fiorentina vezet, Egy nullra might not mean much to a Liverpool player but the response it prompted from Liverpool's fans would have conveyed the general sense of events in Fiorentina to the players.

The fans were undaunted last night, but such a critical analyst as Benitez cannot fail to know that he has a mighty mountain to climb as the more important challenge of a fourth Premier League finish restarts on Sunday. The schedule for Fernando Torres' return, laid down by specialists in Valencia, suggest he might be back in a few weeks but we will only know then if his inguinal hernia can bear the test of the Christmas programme.

Steven Gerrard started brightly last night but there were more signs that he is less than fit. The £17m Alberto Aquilani had one minute of football at the end. A distinct absence of encouraging signs from the players Benitez must now look to. The psychological effect of this elimination on the ilk of Torres and Gerrard remains unclear but this is a brittle squad.

Benitez patched up his side last night, gambling on the fitness of Glen Johnson, whose right arm was bandaged, Daniel Agger, a headband covering his stitched cut, along with Fabio Aurelio and Gerrard. It all added up to a sign that Liverpool's players had to stand up and be counted in a stadium which carried its omens from the start. England's 7-1 defeat here on 24 May 1954 remains their heaviest of all time.

Briefly, they looked like restoring some pride. It took Liverpool only four minutes to go ahead, Mascherano working a short corner which Aurelio hoisted across from the right for Carragher to nod down towards David Ngog, who needed the faintest touch with the outside of his right boot to net. Amid all of Benitez's trials as he attempts to salvage something form this wreckage, is some comfort to take in the emergence of Ngog. A sum of £1.5m to Paris St-Germain for a player who has scored five times this season looks like good business indeed.

It was after 28 minutes – just about the time that Ngog was receiving a ball from Kuyt and forcing a fine diving save from Vukasin Poleksic – that Liverpool's grip on elite European football slipped a little further away with Fiorentina's penalty. In the minutes that followed here were reminders of the defensive problems which have characterised Liverpool's campaign. Twice the right-back Laszlo Bodnas levelled crosses which found an unmarked Gergely Rudolf, the striker who netted in both ties against Fiorentina. His free header and free right foot both sailed wide.

Rudolf, the hosts' most dangerous threat, next stole a ball from Emiliano Insua and the young Argentine was forced to make a heavy challenge to take the ball back. Agger lined up a chance for Gerrard in the second half, elegantly negotiating a route past Bodnar on the edge of the Debrecen box and laying back for Gerrard, who thumped high over from 30 yards. But there were few more chances. Ironically, Benitez turned to Italy for inspiration at the end, Andrea Dossena replacing Aurelio and then Aquilani for Gerrard. But the Italians in either city could not help. The adventure was over.

Debrecen (4-4-2) Poleksic; Bodnar, Meszaros, Mijadinoski, Fodor (Dombi, 78); Szelesi, Czvitkovics, Szakaly (Coulibaly, 62), Kiss; Laczko, Rudolf. Substitutes not used: Pantic (gk), Ramos, Komlosi, Bernath, Varga.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1) Reina; Johnson, Agger, Carragher, Insua; Lucas, Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard (Aquilani, 89), Aurelio (Dossena, 89); Ngog (Benayoun, 77). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Kyrgiakos, Spearing, Skrtel.

Referee: B Kuipers (Netherlands).

Group E

Results so far: 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; Debrecen 0 Liverpool 1; Fiorentina 1 Lyons 0.

Liverpool remaining fixture: Wed 9 Dec: Fiorentina (h).