PSV Eindhoven 0 Liverpool 0: Benitez justifies Gerrard omission

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The Independent Online

There is currently no limit to Liverpool's generosity. On Saturday their once resilient defence evaporated during the club's heaviest Merseyside derby defeat for 42 years and last night the gifts arrived from on high as Rafael Benitez commenced his Champions' League campaign without Steven Gerrard and with unashamed timidity.

Given the manner of the reverse against local rivals and the frailties that have plagued his rearguard of late, there was undoubted satisfaction for the Liverpool manager in achieving a first clean sheet of the season at PSV Eindhoven. The opening game in Group C, however, demanded a more adventurous response from Benitez and his players, with or without their inspirational captain, and the absence of three valuable points on their return home owed more to innate caution rather than the misfortune that befell Gerrard when a typically immaculate volley struck the inside of goalkeeper Gomes' post in the final minute.

"We had enough chances, the last one especially, to have won the game," insisted Benitez, although it was his next comment that revealed his true intentions. He added: "It has been difficult after seven games in 21 days with a lot of players coming back from international duty, so to keep a clean sheet and show people that we can play and that we can beat (sic) a good team like PSV is not bad."

In terms of European pedigree and recent success, PSV are worthy opponents - this is their 10th successive season in the Champions' League and in May they retained the Dutch league title by a 10-point margin. Yet they are a team in transition. Several key players from the championship side departed this summer, along with their renowned coach Guus Hiddink, and they offered Liverpool an ideal platform to consign recent troubles to the margins. From the moment the visitors' team-sheet arrived with the names of both Gerrard and Xabi Alonso on the bench, where they remained until the 71st and 61st minute respectively, they never appeared intent on accepting that invitation.

Benitez's brave team selection was both part punishment and part preservation. While the demotion of Sami Hyypia, Alonso, Peter Crouch and Robbie Fowler was justified on the basis of their contributions against Everton, the decision to spare Gerrard ahead of the trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday served only to deprive Liverpool of much-needed inspiration.

"I was very surprised to hear Gerrard was on the bench," admitted Hiddink's successor as PSV coach, Ronald Koeman. "We know Benitez changes quite a bit but when players like Gerrard and Hyypia don't play then it is always a surprise." Liverpool did find encouragement in the absence of Gerrard, the movement and menace of Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy offering particular hope of a way out of their current difficulties, but this was a night of performance over personality for Benitez, who went back to basics.

While Bellamy carried the initial threat with pace and Kuyt grew stronger by the minute, Liverpool rarely tested the PSV goalkeeper until the former Feyenoord forward silenced the inevitable jeers every time he touched the ball by striking the outside of the post in the 67th minute.

Jermaine Pennant, Boudewijn Zenden and Fabio Aurelio all went close from distance but it was under-pressure Liverpool keeper Reina who was required to make the more telling interventions as Koeman employed the same formation that brought him success over Benitez in last season's Champions' League with Benfica - lone striker Arouna Kone delivered a vibrant show ahead of a supporting cast of three, deep-lying forwards.

Kone almost opened the scoring in the ninth minute when he latched on to a mistake by Momo Sissoko and unleashed a powerful shot from 18 yards before Jamie Carragher, who last night became only the fourth player in Liverpool's history to make 80 European appearances for the club, could intercept. Reina was beaten, but the crossbar came to the visitors' rescue. The Ivory Coast forward squandered a glorious chance at the start of the second half and it was not until Gerrard's late introduction that Liverpool finally abandoned caution. In the 89th minute the midfielder exposed the folly of Benitez's line-up when he volleyed Kuyt's header past Gomes but on to the woodwork.

"We had a lot of good players on the bench but you only ask about one player," said Benitez when quizzed about Gerrard. The point is, he is not just another player to Liverpool.

PSV Eindhoven (4-2-3-1): Gomes; Kromkamp, Alex, Reiziger, Salcido; Simons, Mendez; Afellay (Vayrynen, 74), Farfan, Culina (Aissati, 63); Kone. Substitutes not used: Moens (gk), Kluivert, Da Costa, Addo, Lamey.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Warnock; Pennant, Sissoko (Alonso, 62), Zenden, Aurelio (Gonzalez, 82); Kuyt, Bellamy (Gerrard, 71). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Hyypia, Garcia, Crouch.

Referee: M Busacca (Switzerland).

* The other tie in Group C between Galatasaray and Bordeaux finished goalless.

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