Goal drought continues as strikers spurn flood of chances

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The Independent Football

Two moments of defensive frailty might have lost Liverpool this match, but what cost them their European Cup was a chronic inability to score. The team that breached Milan's renowned rearguard three times in six minutes in Istanbul to recapture the trophy departedin the first knock-out round having failed to find the net in six hours since Djibril Cissé's last-minute goal against Anderlecht in November.

There are lies, damned lies and football statistics, but whatever slant one puts on the figures for Rafael Benitez's strikers, it is irrefutable that Liverpool are suffering a goal drought of crisis proportions. Fernando Morientes came into the contest having failed to score in 956 minutes. Peter Crouch had struck once in 796, while the form of Cissé (no goals in 649) and Robbie Fowler (none in 358) offered scant hope from the bench. None was able to break the spell last night.

On such nights at Anfield, the talk is invariably of the crowd being worth a goal to Liverpool. Ronald Koeman, the Benfica coach, had played down such notions, remarking with cold Dutch logic that "the fans can't score". You knew what he meant, yet there were numerous occasions during the first half when the denizens of the Kop must have been convinced they could have done better in front of goal than Morientes and Crouch.

Both began brightly enough. After four minutes, Morientes drifted away from two defenders with the aplomb that made him one of the top 10 Champions' League scorers of all time. The shot, however, went tamely to Moretto in Benfica's goal, betraying a lack of confidence.

Crouch, despite being the only Liverpool striker to have scored this year, also looked short of self-belief. Rather than taking heart from a 10th-minute effort that was deflected on to a post, his body language suggested he considered fate was against him.

Fastening on to the ball some 10 yards from goal, after Steven Gerrard had driven at the heart of the Portuguese defence, he sidefooted it straight at the goalkeeper when a forward with better technique, and greater conviction, would surely have chipped the custodian as he went to ground early.

The starting duo were not, it must be said, helped by the mundane quality of the service they received. Gerrard, as ever, looked prepared to play Benfica on his own and still looked the likeliest scorer to the end. But there was not one occasion during the first 45 minutes when Harry Kewell or Luis Garcia went to the byline and pulled the ball back for the front-runners to attack, and next to none when Moretto's guardians were forced to turn to face their goal in the way defenders hate.

Once Benfica's 36th-minute goal had curled in from Simao - a player, ironically, that Benitez saw as a possible answer to his team's lack of width - the optimists sought encouragement from a different set of statistics and precedents. Hadn't Liverpool fallen behind in last season's tournament to Olympiakos and still scored the three goals they needed in the second half? And what about that final flurry against Milan?

The PA announcer's chuckling aside about Andrei Shevchenko missing a penalty at the San Siro may have reminded Liverpool followers of that balmy, barmy night. Likewise the introduction of Cissé, who took up a wide-right position in a 3-3-4 formation in the closing stages, followed swiftly by Fowler, a substitution which finally put Morientes out of his misery. There, alas, the similarities ended.