Liverpool have earned their breathing space, though at a considerable cost. Group C was won after an evening of huff and puff eroded PSV Eindhoven's resistance, but three men were lost to injury. This victory was supposed to allow Rafael Benítez to rest players for the final match, away to Galatasaray. Instead, its legacy may undermine his attempts to reinvigorate his side's stuttering Premiership form.
The manager's first thoughts this morning will presumably be about assessing the injuries sustained by Xabi Alonso, Mark Gonzalez and Jermaine Pennant - three-quarters of his first-choice midfield since Mohamed Sissoko dislocated a shoulder. Alonso is the least serious, though a clash with Csaba Feher after 20 minutes caused him to hobble off with a dead leg and damaged hip. He left Anfield on crutches, yet the loss of both wingers with hamstring damage is most worrying.
Pennant could at least sit up and stretch his legs as he was carried off 11 minutes from time. Gonzalez was less fortunate. The Chilean has yet to thrive since arriving from La Liga in the summer, his displays fitful as he struggles to cope with the pace and power of the Premiership. He had briefly revelled at continental pace here, nodding a cross from Pennant wide, but his display was curtailed after its most promising opening, some 36 minutes in.
Fed down the left, the 22-year-old skimmed a fine centre which was touched behind by Alex, only for the winger to rip his hamstring as he fell. Steven Gerrard and Boudewijn Zenden offered consolation as he departed the field, but Gonzalez was inconsolable on his stretcher. There will be a scan at Melwood today and Benítez is clinging to the hope that the tear is not too severe. "Mark is the most serious," he said. "Normally that's two or three weeks at least, but it will depend upon how serious it is."
The procession of players on and off the field did little for Liverpool's rhythm. "It's difficult to manage in a game when you lose two players in the first half," said Benítez. "Given we have lost Momo [Sissoko] already, now to lose Xabi ... Luis García isn't 100% fit either because he has only just come back from his own injury, but my players were very professional."
They needed to be against stubborn opponents. PSV arrived having won their previous nine matches, but they rarely suggested they were capable of prolonging that sequence. The Dutch side instead sat deep and cluttered the midfield, intent upon suffocating their hosts in the hope that frustration would force ill-discipline and offer a rare opportunity to strike on the counter. Ultimately, though, it was the visitors who cracked.
The contest had creaked beyond the hour mark, a story of fluffed half-chances from Peter Crouch and misplaced passes as the frustration welled up, when Liverpool conjured a first move of genuine incision. Steve Finnan's pass infield was collected by Dirk Kuyt, spinning neatly away from Alex to slip Gerrard into rare space beyond the flustered Timmy Simons. The visitors' rearguard was pierced. The midfielder bore down on Heurelho Gomes and, with the goalkeeper prone, rammed his second club goal of the season into the gaping net.
It was the first time PSV had conceded in 714 minutes, the goal putting Gerrard alongside Ian Rush as Liverpool's leading scorer in the European Cup, with 14 goals. The PSV manager Ronald Koeman called the captain's display "outstanding".
"I'm enjoying being back in the middle of the park," said Gerrard. "This is the position I like to play. The real plus tonight is we have topped the group, although that doesn't automatically mean you get a weaker team. Being at home in the second leg is a definite advantage, though."
There was the inevitable flurry of PSV pressure in pursuit of an equalising goal. Arouna Koné's deflected shot was caught by José Reina, but a home win was assured before nails were bitten down to the bone. As PSV attempted a late assault, García delivered a fine cross from the left which was nodded back cleverly across goal by Kuyt for Crouch, virtually on the goal-line, to glance the ball into the empty net.
This was reward for patience and will ensure that Benítez can take virtually a reserve team to Galatasaray for the final group game next month. "Our target was to win the group," he said. "If we had drawn and needed to go to Istanbul and win it would have been difficult. But we can turn to other things now."
Beyond scrutinising medical scans, the focus will be on reviving domestic form so that, when the Champions League knockout phase begins next year, Liverpool are thriving in the Premiership once again.
Liverpool line-up at LFChistory.net
Heurelho Silva Gomes, Rodrigo Dias da Costa Alex, Manuel Da Costa Trindade, Carlos Salcido, Ibrahim Afellay, Csaba Feher (Diego Tardelli), Jan Kromkamp, Edison Mendez (Roy Beerens), Timmy Simons, Jefferson Agustín Guadalupe Farfan, Arouna Kone
PSV Eindhoven 2
PSV Eindhoven 8
PSV Eindhoven 3
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