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Mar 8, 2006

Istanbul confined to history books

Liverpool 0 - 2 Benfica

Liverpool's Champions League win in Istanbul came in improbable fashion last May, but the manner in which they surrendered their grip on their trophy was all too predictable.

Not that Benfica's win at Anfield was expected - far from it - or that the match was uneventful - it could have finished 4-3 - but, once again, Liverpool failed to score a goal.

They have now only scored five in 10 games and it was a litany of missed chances led to the red ribbons being removed from the trophy Liverpool value most. In both the Premiership (33 goals from 436 efforts) and the Champions League (six from 89 before tonight), Liverpool average a goal every 14 or 15 efforts.

Rafael Benitez said in the build-up: 'If we have 20 attempts and only score one goal, maybe we need 30.' And even that is no guarantee, as tonight proved.

There are lies, damned lies and statistics, but at Anfield, the facts are indicative of a malaise in front of goal that has ended their defence of the Champions League. The blame should not be shouldered by the midfield, blending industry with creativity, or a usually redoubtable defence, breached twice tonight, but by a marvellous individual strike and a late second when Liverpool threw caution to the wind.

In attack, however, they used a quartet with one goal in 40 games for Liverpool in 2006. Make that one in 44. And, as is frequently the case in the biggest games, Peter Crouch and Fernando Morientes were Benitez's preferred pairing; the Englishman has one goal in his last 886 minutes, the Spaniard is now past the 1000 minute mark since he last had cause to celebrate.

Liverpool's starting strikers have a combined total of 17 goals in 89 games, inferior to Steven Gerrard's tally this season alone. Appearances can be deceptive but, no matter how close either gets, they never look like scoring.

As is often the case, Djibril Cisse was confined to a substitute's role, and even then on the right wing. In all probability, the only way he will be at Anfield next season is if Benitez cannot find a buyer.

But the strikers are so culpable because of the excellence, in every other respect, of Benitez's gameplan and personnel.

With Harry Kewell, as though chained to the touchline, providing width, Luis Garcia a source of inventive movement, Gerrard's boundless drive and Xabi Alonso's habitually superlative passing, Liverpool manoeuvre opponents around superbly. They would stretch teams more with genuine pace in attack but, even so, space and chances are created in abundance.

Crouch came closest, striking the post twice. The first came after the quick wit of Garcia had robbed Simao, the second followed a Gerrard corner which enticed goalkeeper Moretto off his line and rebounded back from an unmanned upright.

Sympathy, however, is diminished by memories of a glaring miss. Gerrard and Kewell provided a high-speed combination and the captain's precise pass played the gangly forward in on goal. Moretto was not deceived by his attempts at a dummy and an all-too-tame shot came back off the goalkeeper's left leg.

But hard luck stories should give way to an inquest, and only Robbie Fowler should be spared. He, at least, has put the ball in the net seven times in 2006, four for Manchester City and three - all disallowed - at Anfield. The latest came from a Xabi Alonso corner, adjudged to have gone out; Fowler, on his second coming, was not even third time lucky.

Benitez's explanation was: 'If you analyse the game, it was clear and easy. We created chances, but couldn't score. We made a mistake and they score a goal. We couldn't score in the beginning and also in the second half. If you create chances and you cannot score, then you need to create more chances.'

But how many more are required? Ronald Koeman, meanwhile, was more perceptive, saying: 'They have the money to have the selection from 20 or 22 players. I said before the game it's not normal that they score three or four goals. They always have problems scoring. When you create, two or three big chances in the beginning and you don't score, then it will be a mental problem.'

They always have problems scoring. When you create, two or three big chances in the beginning and you don't score, then it will be a mental problem.
Ronald Koeman
Benfica had far fewer but took two, and in some style. After 35 minutes, Simao Sabrosa, a long-time target of Benitez, turned infield and whipped a wonderful shot into Jose Reina's top left corner. Jamie Carragher had conceded possession cheaply but, while the otherwise dependable hometown hero spent much of the game covering for his hapless cohort in the centre of defence, Djimi Traore, on the solitary occasion he erred, none of his team-mates were able to come to his rescue.

Then victory was sealed in the dying minutes by substitute Fabrizio Miccoli after Liverpool were caught on the counter-attack. It came just after Gerrard, magnificent from start to finish, almost capped a solo run with a sidefooted shot that went narrowly wide. His was a display to evoke memories of Istanbul, though thoughts had already turned to the Champions League final when, at half time, when the PA announcer mentioned Andriy Shevchenko's penalty miss in the San Siro. But 45 minutes later, Istanbul had descended from the recent past to history.

It is a specialist subject for Liverpool. In his programme notes, Benitez had harked back to the victory against Olympiakos last season when, after conceding in the first half, Liverpool needed three goals to progress. The Spaniard proved prescient in only the first half of his prediction. Because lightning rarely strikes twice and, right now, the Liverpool forwards never strike at all.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Anderson displayed an uncanny ability to block virtually anything hit near him, and just earns this vote ahead of his central defensive partner Luisao. Liverpool's best player was - inevitably - the indefatigable Steven Gerrard

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: It's the same old story. But if Liverpool are to ward off reported interest in Bentiez from Inter Milan and Real Madrid in the summer, their transfer budget must be plentiful - and spent on strikers.

BENFICA VERDICT: They defended magnificently and the attacking diamond posed a threat on the counter-attack. That said, they struggled in the midfield and are arguably the weakest side left in the Champions League.

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