Liverpool running on empty

By Henry Winter

Liverpool are running on empty, running out of players, energy and ideas. It is too soon to claim that Rafa Benítez is running out of time but this was a horror show, a hammer blow to their European ambitions and a brutal reminder of how poor Liverpool are without Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. No Gerrard, no Torres, no leadership, no cutting edge, no chance.

Barring a brief chorus of disapproval when Benítez inexplicably removed Yossi Benayoun, Liverpool’s goalscorer and chief ray of light, the Kop remained steadfast in support of their manager. Sympathy persists because of the problems caused by the American co-owners, but that cannot mask the reality that Benítez has bought badly, has failed to address defensive failings at crosses and needs to engage more with his players. At the club where no one walks alone, there does not seem to be much togetherness.

The back four appear a collection of individuals, not a well-drilled human barricade. Liverpool’s keeper, Pepe Reina, performed admirably, making some stunning saves, but he was left exposed when Lyon rallied, securing a famous victory through Maxime Gonalons and Cesar Delgado.

When they needed to fight, Liverpool folded. Where was the spirit?

Jamie Carragher, whose commitment can never be questioned, sweated manfully for the cause, attempting to keep the defence in shape, but little protection was offered by his midfielders. Javier Mascherano started brightly, snapping into tackles, but tired. Lucas turned into Lucan and disappeared. Postcard to Xabi Alonso: wish you were here.

If the removal of Benayoun, who brings invention and adventure to proceedings, was not galling enough, the sight of Liverpool’s strike-force ending as David Ngog and Andriy Voronin, a Carling Cup attack at best, was little short of an affront to those who have long followed this great club. Anfield has thrilled to strikers like Kevin Keegan and John Toshack, Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen. But Ngog and Voronin? Embarrassing.

Season over? Not yet, but the clock is ticking loudly. Liverpool’s fourth defeat on the spin made it their worst run since 1987. Next up? Manchester United. Of course, the joy of sport is that redemption is always just around the corner, that one victory can change everything. If Benítez can mastermind a triumph over United on Sunday then all will be forgiven, if not completely forgotten.

As Benítez seeks to guide Liverpool out of this period of darkness, at least Torres and Glen Johnson will definitely be fit to face Sir Alex Ferguson’s champions. Gerrard, who had an injection to get on the pitch last night, was removed as a precaution after feeling his groin tighten 25 minutes in. Gerrard headed straight down the tunnel, but Liverpool are optimistic that their talismanic captain will make Sunday’s date with destiny.

For those Kopites keen to accentuate the positive, Liverpool had one point after three Champions League games last season and still qualified for the knockout stage. This, though, looks far harder with Lyon lying in wait at Stade Gerland 24 hours before Bonfire Night. Anyone for fireworks?

A few distress flares went up last night. For those searching through the detritus of defeat for crumbs of comfort, Anfield at least witnessed a magnificent first start for Martin Kelly, a local hero in the making.

A highly-regarded academy product, Kelly had only a few games on loan at Huddersfield and eight minutes as a substitute against PSV Eindhoven last season to his name but he relished this challenge, making some good tackles and always looking to push down the right. Some of the full-back’s crossing was exceptional. The best compliment that can be paid is that Johnson was hardly missed. Benítez could do worse than play Kelly at full-back and Johnson on the right wing.

Kelly had to recover from a shaky moment as Lyon, lifeless for much of the game before the break, showed rare ambition after 11 minutes. Aly Cissokho, so impressive down the left for Porto against United last season, raided upfield, eluding Kelly and lifting over a cross met firmly by Lisandro. Reina’s save was of the highest order, the Spaniard pushing the ball to safety.

Liverpool hit back. Benayoun had been assuming more and more responsibility, taking the game to Lyon, working the ball to Fabio Aurelio four minutes from the break. Aurelio’s ball into the box — and Kelly’s run through the middle – caused chaos.

One man kept his head. One player remained calm amidst the storm and flying feet. Controlling the loose ball expertly, Benayoun stroked it firmly past Hugo Lloris. As the Kop breathed a collective sigh of relief, Benayoun ran deliberately towards the home bench, not to Benítez, but to the club doctor, Mark Waller, who was wrapped in a huge embrace.

Liverpool went for the second: Lloris denied Aurelio and Kuyt while Ngog shot weakly wide. Lyon’s coach, Claude Puel, had seen enough, hooking Edersen, and sending on Bafétimbi Gomis, a tall, muscular striker who caused carnage in Liverpool’s defence as the hosts’ confidence drained away.

Defending the Kop end, Carragher and company were under siege. Kelly, a real talent in the making, headed clear and then slid in to stop Cissokho.

Lyon pushed and probed, eventually equalising after 72 minutes. Lucas was far too easily bypassed in midfield, Lyon flooded forward, forcing a corner off Mascherano. Mayhem ruled. Liverpool’s marking was shocking, allowing Lyon three uncontested attempts at goal. Only Reina delayed the inevitable, saving from Jeremy Toulalan, then Sidney Govou before Gonalons made it third time lucky for Lyon with a header that arrowed into Liverpool’s net and hearts.

Benítez gambled, removing Benayoun, precipitating those boos as Voronin came on. And when Delgado stroked home Lyon’s winner in stoppage time, the dissent resurfaced. It soon dissipated but the point had been made. Anfield expects better.

Copyright - The Telegraph

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