Eden Hazard’s freak strike settles the match
By Rory Smith in Lille
Liverpool would be forgiven for feeling they have been here before. A professional, resilient display on a cold French night undone by one slip of concentration, one moment where their luck did not hold. For Lyon, read Lille, and déjà vu all over again.
Rafael Benitez, at least, can take solace in the fact that Eden Hazard’s freak strike here may not have such dire consequences as the Lisandro Lopez goal which did for their Champions League hopes in the Stade Gerland in November. Liverpool have a chance at redemption next week.
The Liverpool manager will also be pleased by a display which was, at least, vastly superior to the abject collapse at Wigan on Monday. His side may have been beaten, but for once, all is not doom and gloom.
Contrary to general perception, Liverpool’s players are not, for the most part, suddenly lacking in talent. They have not, overnight, simply become a bad team. This is a side, after all, that swept most of Europe aside this time last year. Benitez’s constant evoking of the recent past may seem, at times, irrelevant, or desperate, or both, but his bafflement at his side’s demise is understandable.
It just shows what confidence - or rather, a complete lack of it - can do. Faith and hope have disappeared from Anfield. In their absence, there is only doubt.
Liverpool’s players do not trust each other. They do not trust themselves. They do not trust the ball, or the pitch - though, in the latter case, they at least had good reason here - and they do not trust their tactics, their system, or their fate.
It is evident in almost every passage of their play. Passes are uncertain, timid and ordinarily backwards. Shots are snatched at, clearances agricultural, and movement limited, as players prioritise their defensive duties over the chance of attack. It is an intractable problem, and one that can only by solved by winning games. Games can only be won, though, once it is overcome. Quite the Catch 22.
That does not mean, though, that when they forget their troubles and strife, Liverpool are not capable of moments of quality, flashes of divine recollection.
After riding their hosts’ early storm, inspired by a fluid formation and the impressive attacking trio of the much-coveted Hazard, Ludovic Obraniak and Pierre-Alain Frau, Liverpool began to assert themselves.
Fernando Torres, menacing from deep, released Ryan Babel, demanding a fine sliding tackle from the towering centre-back Adil Rami. The Spanish international offered the Dutchman a chance to redeem himself, the pair cutting through Lille’s defence with a fine exchange of passes only for Babel, enjoying one of his more productive evenings, to shoot at Mickael Landreau’s legs.
Torres, too, went close, his header from Glen Johnson’s cross drawing Landreau into a smart low dive, sandwiching two fine efforts from the subdued Steven Gerrard.
Rudy Garcia’s team, though, as befits a side keeping pace with Bordeaux, Lyon and Marseille in a typically enthralling French title race, were not without threat. Hazard, in particular, tormented a nervous backline all night, the flash of his yellow boots a constant sign of danger.
It was the Belgian international that settled the game, if not the tie. Lille had gradually seized the initiative in a finely-balanced second half, Frau’s fizzing 25-yard shot stinging Pepe Reina’s knuckles before Daniel Agger almost turned Florent Balmont’s cross into his own net, while Yohan Cabaye’s speculative attempt flashed just over.
Just as it seemed Liverpool would escape, Hazard struck, whipping a free-kick deep from the left across Reina’s goal, narrowly beyond a host of heads and into the far corner.
Benitez, though, knows these days he must be thankful for small mercies. A goalless draw would have left his side with much the same task, of scoring at Anfield, and besides, it could have been considerably worse, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hitting the post - via Agger’s back - barely a moment after Hazard’s goal.
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