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Oct 20, 2009

Problems mounting at Anfield

Playing with a beach ball brought perils of its own, but Liverpool have now strayed into the quicksand. They have acquired a sudden sinking feeling, threatening to drop into the Europa League at considerable damage to both bank balance and self-esteem. Cesar Delgado's injury-time strike made an unstable position positively precarious for a club whose usual rescuers were sadly sidelined.

• Harry Harris: Liverpool sink further into the mire
• Liverpool 1-2 Lyon: Super subs seal Lyon win
• Benitez insists Gerrard selection was no gamble

As the jubilant Lyon supporters embarked on a chorus of the French national anthem, Liverpool's thoughts may have turned to the city saluted in its lyrics. Marseille won at Anfield at a similar stage two years ago. A spirited response followed as they salvaged qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Now a repeat is required. "We have done it before and we will have to do it again," said Rafa Benitez.

But his side are wounded, though not yet mortally, in Europe as well as the Premier League title race. It was hard to judge which body part caused greater concern: Steven Gerrard's groin or Delgado's left foot. The Argentine delivered Lyon's injury-time winner, tucking home Sidney Govou's cross after a perceptive pass from Miralem Pjanic. It leaves Lyon in a dominant position in Group E with Liverpool three points adrift of Fiorentina and needing a result in the Stade Gerland in a fortnight.

It also means that, for the first time since 1987, they have lost four successive matches. The first setback came with the score still goalless. As Gerrard made a solitary trudge to the touchline, however, his disheartened demeanour was understandable. The most immediate and taxing test of Liverpool's campaign beckons against Manchester United on Sunday. A downhearted Gerrard and a downbeat audience appreciated the significance of the recurrence of his groin problem. It became apparent over the next 65 minutes, even if neither Lyon goal was directly attributable to his exit.

For the Lyon manager Claude Puel, they represented a triumph. Both were scored by substitutes and while his decision making has been questioned after a record outlay, it proved inspired. "When the second goal went in, I thought it was a deserved victory," said the former Monaco manager. "It was an excellent performance. I would have preferred not to have conceded a goal but we gave a good account of ourselves."

For Liverpool, the equaliser was almost as unwelcome as its all-too-familiar method. Another set-piece, another goal sieved as chaos reigned at the back. Maxime Gonalons headed in after Jose Reina denied Jeremy Toulalan and Jean Makoun with a double save following a corner.

It ensured Liverpool's defence could not improve upon an ignominious record. Only Stoke, Burnley, Debrecen and Leeds had failed to score against them this season. There was a time, less than a year ago, when Benitez was regarded as a defensive coach, a strategist who was a connoisseur of clean sheets. Since then, Liverpool have attacked at breakneck speed at the end of last season and conceded with alarming regularity this.

They finished the match lacking authority at the back. Jamie Carragher ended it at right-back, after Martin Kelly went off injured, and his bloody-minded approach was missed in the middle. "We had too many problems before the game," said Benitez, with Glen Johnson a late addition to the absentees before his difficulties were exacerbated during the game. "We had injuries but we still had our chances."

No chance was taken on his captain, apparently, though it is too soon to tell if he will be fit to face United. "It was no risk because he wanted to play and the doctors said he was okay. He was training the last two days," Benitez added. "He did something, he knew and it was best to change him."

Gerrard's principal contribution before his exit was to cross for Dirk Kuyt to head in, though the Dutchman was penalised for pushing Toulalan. The captain's replacement, Fabio Aurelio, at least exerted an impact, almost scoring with a strong header and a ferocious shot after he had provided the opener.

It was a move begun by Yossi Benayoun in his own half. Thereafter, the advancing Aurelio's thunderous drive was diverted off Makoun towards the far post where Kelly swung and missed but Benayoun retained his composure to lift the ball beyond Hugo Lloris.

Further chances were fashioned. Ngog, already well denied by Lloris, took a cross beautifully on his chest before miscuing a volley wide. Kuyt's downward header provided Lloris with an opportunity to showcase his agility. Lyon, meanwhile, showed their ability while Liverpool displayed their fragility.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Martin Kelly - On a night of few positives for Liverpool, the untried right-back provided one on his full debut. Determined in defence and overlapping effectively, he excelled. Only playing because Glen Johnson was injured and Philipp Degen is not registered to play in Europe, his substitution may well have been a turning point.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: If the result was caused by defensive mishaps, Liverpool lost control of the game after decent spells either side of half-time. That, in turn, is a reflection of the midfield where Lucas and Javier Mascherano have yet to gel this season. They were better on the flanks, with Benayoun and Aurelio making an impact on either side. In attack, David Ngog's pace was cancelled out by his profligacy. That Ryan Babel was not even used as a substitute is an indication of his standing.

LYON VERDICT: Perhaps the most impressive element of their victory was that Puel's side played the majority of the game with two midfielders operating as auxiliary centre backs. They looked a very accomplished side and perhaps but perversely, not winning Ligue 1 last season may have done them a favour.

BENAYOUN BOOS: Benitez's decision to replace the popular Benayoun with the eternally ineffective Andriy Voronin was greeted with a rare display of dissent from the crowd. "The fans knew Yossi is a very good player. But I thought he was a little bit tired and I wanted to use fresh legs," said the Liverpool manager.

GEORGE II: There has been a rarity value to co-owner George Gillett's trips to Anfield. Now, as he appears to be stepping up his attempts to sell his stake, he was present for the second time in a month, though this result may hamper his chances of finding a buyer. The directors' box also included former Liverpool and Lyon boss Gerard Houllier.

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