Fan Diary #10: Hitting The Champions League Wall
After Liverpool comfortably dispatched Hull this past weekend, I went into the Fiorentina match with soaring expectations. I tucked all of Liverpool’s defensive and central midfield problems under the carpet of Torres’ hat trick adorned with Gerrard, Babel and Riera’s collective fuel for the goal-momentum fire. Fiorentina (whom I knew little about) would be no problem, I told myself. Another three points in the group stage and a chance to keep going full tilt on our way to the Chelsea match this coming Sunday.
But in the first half, Fiorentina quickly picked up on the space we were leaving open on both flanks with Johnson and Insua getting forward and lingering out of position. That combined with Lucas’ inability to boss the midfield and Fiorentina easily tore through Liverpool again and again. Our possessions led to missed passes and crowded out attackers. Fiorentina’s possessions led to penetrating runs and the Red defense being knocked on its ass quicker than a drunk sumo wrestler is pushed off a tight-rope.
Then Steven Jovetic lingered onside in the 28th minute. He was completely unmarked and he easily chomped up that perfect through-ball. I knew we were in trouble. The youngster’d already had some healthy chances and now he was one-on-one with Pepe Reina. He fired the ball. Pepe tried to get a foot to it but just missed the low shot.
This is the point where I say to myself: “Alright, my side is playing like crap, but this will wake them up.”
Plenty of times last season conceding that first goal was the injection Liverpool needed to remember something was at stake and switch on their engines. Most notably the 2-1 against Manchester United after Tevez knocked the opening goal home in the third minute. It was the greatest favor the Red Devils could have done us. The Liverpool response was a beautiful attacking rebuttal, capped by Ryan Babel’s 77th minute curling winner. (I still get goosebumps thinking about that match and that goal.)
Against Fiorentina, I was maintaining the stubborn confidence that we’d turn this around.
Then nine minutes after the first goal, Juan Vargas sent a determined ball into the area and there was Jovetic in perfect position AGAIN. He instantly redirected it past Pepe and the home side were up two-nil.
I was left with that sting of seeing the match tumbling out of reach, while being floored by an incendiary young talent. Bitter thoughts of “This sucks!” married to screams of “Buy him!”
Halftime came and, again, I was looking for points of reference of hope from the near past. Manchester City. We were down 2-0 to Manchester City at halftime just under a year ago and we came back to win it 2-3. Torres, Torres, Kuyt. We could do this.
And, to be fair, Liverpool came out in the second half with a lot more determination. We turned on pressure, we made convincing passes (even Lucas had a near Xabi-like moment when he fired a long pass – yes, you heard me: a long pass - up the side of the pitch and though I was cringing out of habit, waiting for it to veer out of bounds or fall into the clutches of the opposition, it found its target… shocking!) And Dirk Kuyt, for a moment, looked like he might be channeling Cruyff, turning defenders, lobbing the ball to himself to lose his last marker, only instead of chesting it down and taking the left-footed shot into a world of space, he tried to head it to Benayoun who was crowded out. A moment screaming for Dirk Kuyt to be selfish and his eternal generosity undid the moment.
Liverpool were pushing harder. But we still lacked that spark that spurned on last season’s great comebacks.
Then Voronin came on in the 80th.
Voronin coming on is the substitution equivalent of raising the white flag, throwing the hands up in the air and declaring, Alright, we give up. We’re not scoring today. Let’s rest players and start thinking about the next match.
I’ve said it before: I’d rather see Kenny Dalglish or Ian Rush strip off his two-piece suit, revealing Liverpool colors beneath, stride out onto the pitch and join the action. Neither man can be slower than Voronin and either one will take a lot more shots on goal.
Ten-plus more minutes of grueling frustration. Whistle.
When the match ended, my fellow pubside supporters and I consoled ourselves with the fact that while Liverpool inevitably hit that Champions League wall (Atletico, Besiktas, Marseille, etc) we have a knack for pulling together and escaping the group stage.
But I would have preferred to lose with far more panache than we did yesterday. Two goals down needed to incite a much more convincing spark. We cannot play Lucas as any semblance of a defensive midfielder (get well soon, Masch!) and our defense needs to reestablish the chemistry we once relied on as a foundation for everything else and Steven Gerrard needs to take control of these matches as he once did so completely in the days before Torres.
And we’ve got to got to got to hammer out our problems before Sunday in the monster clash with Chelsea. A match I felt confident about with Cech red-carded and Liverpool scoring six. But after yesterday I have resorted to my default mode: a ball of frenetic nerves.
Whether we get ourselves together or not, it’s going to a hellish couple of hours for yours truly.