Sloppy Liverpool punished as Lyons refuse to roll over

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The Independent Football

Just when all those alchemic powers in Europe seemed to have served him once again, Rafael Benitez's makeshift and ramshackle Liverpool defence was revealed for what it is last night.

That it held to together with glue and sticky tape for 90 minutes only compounds the despair he will feel as a second injury-time goal in successive encounters with Lyons sends them all but out of the Champions League. Dreams of Madrid in May are fast being revised to Hamburg, and a Europa League final at best.

Liverpool's defensive injury list was always a more significant underlying concern for them than Fernando Torres' fitness, or lack of, and Benitez appeared to have got away with it when his substitution conjured a wonderful 25-yard goal from Ryan Babel seven minutes from time and allowed Torres to leave the arena.

Then the horrible reality revealed itself. When a £24m Brazilian striker, Lissandro, is up against your fourth choice central defender (Sotiris Kyrgiakos) and a half fit one (Daniel Agger) the percentages are always weighed against you, even if your name is Benitez and you are sitting in a European dugout. Lissandro beat Kyrgiakos to the ball which bounced agonizingly off the Lyons captain Cris into the net. Bastos was offside when he made his header but no matter now. Lyons are though to the knock-out stage and Liverpool are relying on them not to lose in Fiorentina in 19 days time, to preserve what fragile hopes they have left on progressing.

The French feared this challenge more than many knew, with Torres restored to a Liverpool side which had so sorely missed him in the 2-1 defeat to Lyons at Anfield. Des Illusions vont s'evanouir (the illusions are going to vanish) was L'Equipe's prediction of the encounter and what it would do for French ascendancy in Group E.

You can see why they felt like that. The two sides who look as if they will beat Liverpool to qualification are no giants of the continent – Lyons are two points behind Bordeaux in the Le Ligue, Fiorentina 10 points off Inter and fifth in Serie A. It is testament to the state Liverpool are in, with seven players injured last night, that they have laboured amid such company.

They barely placed a foot on the ball in the first 10 minutes before discovering a fault line in the left side of French defence, where Insua was allowed two chances to cross dangerously. On the first occasion his low ball found Torres unmarked: a gilt-edged chance but Torres looked like a player carrying a hernia. His right foot shot was uncharacteristically lacking in power.

There was little more after that. It was not so much that the team in white were raising the white flag as they had no ammunition. The Lyons programme listed Steven Gerrard as the "homme a surveiller" (man to watch) and it seemed like a cruel joke as the struggle to fashion an opening went on. This was a day when an interview with Gerrard had been published in which he spoke of how he was "devastated" at Xabi Alonso's departure and Benitez would have felt the sentiment with every occasion that Mascherano, the creative fulcrum, could find only a short or square pass.

Benitez turned once more to Andrei Voronin to be the support act for Torres, wondering perhaps whether his wonderful strike in Toulouse which secured qualification from the group stage two years ago, just might be repeated. He soon found the answer. Nearly half an hour had elapsed when Voronin was handed a wonderful chance to atone for months of indifference. Mascherano lofted a quickly taken free kick 20 yards which the home defence missed completely. Voronin, through one on one, had to time to comb his ponytail as well as pick his spot but his side footed effort was miserable, lacking no pace, and Lloris blocked it with his legs. A pitch's length away, Reina clawed to the heavens in desperation at what he had seen and its significance.

In possession, Lyons looked the better side, quick and particularly confident down the left with Cissokho advancing behind Lissandro. The options were so painfully limited for Benitez that for once went for was predictable: Babel on for Voronin after a display which was insipid even by his own standard. The half fit Torres would have to work on.

Babel's Champions League campaign had included such undistinguished highlights as him photographing the inside of the Fiorentina dugout for his Twitter page before last night, which gives you a sense of what desperate straits Benitez was in when he sent him on. It is a measure of the manager's extraordinary ways in Europe that within 17 minutes the 22-year-old had cut in from the left and unleashed a 25-yard shot to send Liverpool ahead. In the next minute he blasted another shot so wide it found touch on the far side of the field.

Lyons' equaliser was not a product of Liverpool streaming forward to double their money but an inability to hold what they had defensively. "We made a mistake," Benitez said last night. "We had too many player around [the ball] and we should do better. It's part of the game. When we are winning and in control... we have to make a better challenge."

As their coach took them out of Lyons last night, the Liverpool players might have gazed out on the local bus shelters with adverts for the Sergio Leone exhibition which formed part of last month's Lumiere film festival here. The Italian film director's creations include For a Few Dollars More – precisely what would have bought the club's American owners an extra defender or two, rather than sticky tape, to serve at the death on nights like this.

Lyons (4-3-3): Lloris; Réveillère (Gassama, 18), Cris, Toulalan, Cissokho; Pjanic (Ederson,41), Makoun, Kallstrom; Gomis (Govou, 73), Lopez, Bastos. Substitutes not used: Vercoutre (gk), Delgado, Tafer, Gonalons.

Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Carragher, Agger, Kyrgiakos, Insua; Kuyt, Lucas, Mascherano, Benayoun; Voronin (Babel, 66); Torres (Ngog, 87). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Aquilani, Spearing, Darby, Ayala.

Referee: F De Bleeckere (Belgium).