Solid Liverpool rest more soundly on a first clean sheet

So slapdash have Liverpool been at times this season that Rafael Benítez may be grateful for this small mercy. The Champions League has brought a return to normality of sorts, a first clean sheet since mid-April and one which secured the visitors a point. But their Spanish manager will not be fooled. This was a missed opportunity.

The destiny of an awkward group appears no clearer this morning; Benítez's side missed a chance to put some distance between them and the pack as the other game in the group, Galatasaray against Bordeaux, also finished goalless.

Ninety seconds from the end of normal time Steven Gerrard turned on the edge of the area and thrashed a dipping volley over the prone Heurelho Gomes and on to the far post. It was the third time in four days that the Liverpool midfielder had struck woodwork, though the frustration was born less of the miss and more of the fact that Gerrard had spent 72 minutes of last night marooned on the bench.

His was a surprise omission, presumably with Sunday's Premiership trip to Chelsea in mind, but given the impact he made in this cameo appearance it appears to be a risk which did not pay off. "I think I've explained many, many times," said  Benítez afterwards. "We cannot play all games at 100%. We played a very difficult game at Everton. If you have a good squad you can use different players, and I think we used [Gerrard] at the right moment.

"If you analyse how PSV play it was really important to work hard in defence to close their penetrating passes and be compact going forward. We did that with Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt creating opportunities. The midfield did a lot of work, and Momo Sissoko was exhausted. But Gerrard and Xabi Alonso don't have the same stamina levels as Momo. I want to use all the players I have, and my selections depend on each game."

The importance of the game at the Bridge is clear, given the sluggish start Liverpool have made to their league campaign, but there was still a lingering sense of frustration to follow Benítez back to Merseyside. A year ago Gerrard began on the bench and Liverpool still won 2-1 at Real Betis.

In time this may prove an excellent point, however. PSV have not lost a group match at home in three years and did not concede a goal here in the group last term. But the Dutch side, with the former Liverpool player Jan Kromkamp labouring at right-back and Alex floundering in the centre, appear fallible. The visitors could have capitalised last night.

Yet without Gerrard, and with Alonso joining him on the sidelines for over an hour, Liverpool lacked a figure to impose himself on the contest. Boudewijn Zenden, for four years a PSV player, and Sissoko were rugged enough but the "Bolo and Momo" partnership hardly strikes fear into opponents.

Edison Méndez was the game's dominant force when it should have been Gerrard. "I was very surprised," admitted the PSV coach Ronald Koeman. "We know that Benítez changes things quite a bit, but to see Gerrard, Alonso and [Sami] Hyypia not playing . . ."

Privately he must have been ecstatic. Liverpool had other chances but they were on the break and invariably arose through the pace of Bellamy and the rugged running of Kuyt. The Dutchman was thwarted for the best of them, Carlos Salcido diving in to smother a first-half shot after Fabio Aurelio had slipped the striker through.

They have now gone five Champions League games proper without a goal, yet their cautious approach betrayed that of a side scorched by events at Goodison Park on Saturday. Confidence is clearly fragile, but a defence once renowned for its stinginess will feel slightly better for the shut-out, a first since a 1-0 win at Blackburn 11 matches previously. Even so Benítez will remain wary. Much of their defending was still laced with indecision, with José Reina clearly traumatised by recent slips and an uncharacteristic vulnerability eating away at those ahead of him.

Arouna Koné, all peroxide-blond hair and dangerous intent, struck the Reds bar from distance after outpacing Sissoko and veering away from Jamie Carragher. Had the Ivorian shown more composure later, particularly when sent scurrying through by Méndez, he might have had some reward. So might Jefferson Farfan, who was denied only by Steve Finnan's timely challenge six yards out; and Ibrahim Afellay, one of the rising hopes of Netherlands football, forced Reina to tip aside an awkward, swerving shot.

"We know the experience and the quality of PSV so if we beat them at home a draw here will have been a good result," added Benítez. Time may prove the Liverpool manager right, but for now the doubts remain.

Copyright - The Guardian

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