The Champions' League proved the ultimate therapy for Rafael Benitez and Liverpool last season, erasing the pain of an alarming League campaign for the manager and the aches of a club that craved the restoration of its reputation. Alas, the competition is yet to extend its recuperative powers to Peter Crouch. Yes, it is that match report again.
Liverpool's passage into the knock-out phase of the tournament last night provided confirmation of Benitez's insistence that they have made progress since May's remarkable triumph in Istanbul.
Last season they required a sensational intervention from Steven Gerrard four minutes from the end of their final group game against Olympiakos to progress; now their place has been secured with 90 minutes to spare courtesy of the point they obtained against Real Betis to render the perils of a trip to Stamford Bridge irrelevant on 6 December. "It is totally different to last season and that can only be good for us," said a relieved Benitez.
Their satisfaction, and their manager's claims that his squad are better equipped to retain the trophy in Paris next May, must be tempered by the continued and almost farcical failure of their strikers to complement a defence that remains as compact as last season and a midfield with more versatility than last year with at least the suggestion of a goal.
The responsibility and the blame are not confined to Crouch, with Fernando Morientes still struggling for the form that brought him three European Cup winner's medals at Real Madrid, Djibril Cissé's erratic nature costing him a place in Benitez's starting XI and even Steven Gerrard squandering two fine chances against the Spaniards. Yet it is the England international whose trials in front of goal continue to divert attention from Liverpool's impressive defence of their crown.
Those who have remained immune to the story of Liverpool's season need only study the 120-second period between the 24th and 26th minutes of last night's goalless draw to bring themselves completely up to date with the good, the bad and the ugly misfortune of Crouch's Anfield career thus far.
The £7m striker brought a timid contest to life when he initially won two aerial challenges, hooked the ball away from David Rivas and then forced the first save of the game from Betis' Antonio Doblas with a half-volley from 25 yards. Thirty seconds later he met Steven Gerrard's corner with a header that would have been described as textbook had it not bounced an inch outside the post and then, following a glorious far-post cross from the Liverpool captain, Crouch spurned the easiest of his three successive chances when he turned a diving header wide from four yards.
"It was another frustrating night for me but the main thing is we are through and we looked comfortable all night," admitted Crouch. "When one goal goes in I'm sure loads will follow." Liverpool's success in the latter stages of this competition could rest on the realisation of that promise.
In fairness to Crouch, the psychological impact of going 20 games without a goal for club or country has not dulled his contribution to Liverpool, and he remained the home side's most potent outlet and creator as Liverpool dominated a Betis team remarkable only for the lack of ambition they displayed in a game they had to win to retain any hope of qualification.
"If he continues to play as well as he did tonight I will be delighted because we will continue to get good results," Benitez said. "That is the most important thing for me. It would be better to see him score but you can see the options he gives us and how well he is playing."
Crouch, his misfortune increased when a goalbound volley struck Rivas on the forearm but brought no penalty, crafted glorious openings for Morientes and Gerrard in the second half, though both were scorned to leave Liverpool suffering unnecessarily in stoppage time as Betis staged the tamest of late rallies.
Qualification means that only the disputed merits of first place in Group G will be at stake when Liverpool travel to Stamford Bridge next month and already Benitez is talking of resting his key players. For all of his problems, Crouch has already established himself in that category.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Gerrard (Potter, 90), Sissoko, Hamann, Zenden; Morientes (Cissé, 66), Crouch (Kewell, 83). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Josemi, Traoré, Warnock.
Real Betis (4-5-1): Doblas; Melli, Juanito, Rivas, Lopez; Joaquin, Assuncao (Capi, 69), Rivera, Arzu, Xisco; Fernando (Bascon, 78). Substitutes not used: Contreras (gk), Canas, Castellini, Edu, Juanlu.
Referee: E Poulat (France).Reuse content