Benitez master plan too shrewd for Barca

It was a well-nigh perfect defeat. Liverpool's single lapse let the substitute Eidur Gudjohnsen through to score and make nerves shriek all round Anfield for the closing quarter of an hour, but the Champions League winners of 2005 deservedly eliminated the holders on the away-goals rule. For the most part, it was Rafael Benítez's's plan that was imprinted on each leg of this last-16 tie.

This manager must be as good at controlling brain patterns as he is at setting tactics. The side's forthright attitude was exactly as he had dictated, no mean feat when there was such a danger of ambivalence on a night that opened with them already holding a 2-1 lead from Camp Nou. Rather than falling between two stools Liverpool hurled the furniture at the visitors, especially before the interval.

There is, of course, one reservation. A goal was tantalisingly close, but it had been, too, when Manchester United prevailed by the same margin on Saturday. A lack of firepower puts undue pressure on the side and unless the finishing is somehow sharpened the stress could be their undoing in the tournament.

All the same, there was not a lugubrious face anywhere in the battalion of fans. They will have glowed at the thought of the parallels with two years ago, when this competition was also the sole prize open to Liverpool. Tribute has to be paid to a side who saw out the last phase so well that they should have hit the net in stoppage time, when Peter Crouch put a volley over the bar after being found by his fellow substitute Jermaine Pennant.

While Benítez will be proud of his preparations, Frank Rijkaard invited further rebukes in this period of disintegration for Barcelona. The visitors' formation was an incitement to mount a barrage. Their back three got insufficient aid from the midfield and could not cover the yawning width of the field. John Arne Riise revelled in the space on the left and went past a static Oleguer to hit the bar with a drive in the 11th minute.

The same piece of woodwork was shuddering again after 32 minutes when the goalkeeper Victor Valdés shanked a clearance to Mohamed Sissoko. The Malian, seeking the first goal of his Liverpool career, smashed it back first-time and failed by the narrowest of margins. The psychological barriers for visitors to Anfield are always steeplingly high, but Rijkaard had placed more obstacles in front of Barcelona.

While Jamie Carragher did make a few of his classic tackles on Deco, Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o there was no desperation and Pepe Reina had not been called upon for a save by half-time. Liverpool's solitary regret at that juncture was the caution for Sissoko, following a foul on Deco, that means he is banned for the first leg of the quarter-final.

They had been in such command that progress to the last eight appeared a formality then. The inability to score could be treated as a minor quirk. With 26 minutes gone, Craig Bellamy's hook shot was fended away by Valdés and the goalkeeper parried a follow-up from Dirk Kuyt before the subsequent header from Riise was cleared off the line by Puyol.

Beforehand Benítez had spoken so willingly about the troubles a tall forward like Crouch could cause Spanish sides that he seemed to be bluffing. So it proved and, with the Englishman initially on the bench, the mobility of Bellamy and Kuyt was perfect against a defensive trio who dreaded having holes torn in a threadbare system.

The fabled front three of Barcelona was an irrelevance when the remainder of the line-up could not set the necessary tempo. Liverpool did not capitalise fully on the disjointed air of the opposition and Bellamy's reactions were dull when a Gerrard pass got through to him in the 48th minute.

It is the type of incident that causes qualms and a reprieved Barcelona became more settled. After 53 minutes, Ronaldinho wheeled across the Liverpool defence, got round Alvaro Arbeloa and fired against a post. Reina belatedly needed to deal with a shot when Messi was set up by Ronaldinho and Eto'o. The latter, whose lack of match fitness was exposed, soon departed.

Liverpool were so resolute that the breakthrough by Gudjohnsen, who rounded Reina after a Xavi pass, was bemusing. The lapse lay with Arbeloa, who had hung back to keep the Icelander onside. Gudjohnsen had missed narrowly when a goal here would have sent Chelsea to the 2005 Champions League final. He did strike yesterday, but still trooped off in sorrow. More teams may suffer despair at Anfield before the Champions League is over.

Match Facts
Champions League last 16, second leg
Tuesday March 06, 2007

FT Liverpool 0-1 Barcelona
16' Arbeloa
20' Sissoko
29' Thuram
75' 0-1 Gudjohnsen
80' Pennant
81' Reina

Jose Manuel Reina, Daniel Agger, Alvaro Arbeloa, Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan, John Arne Riise (Fabio Aurelio), Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard, Mohamed Sissoko, Craig Bellamy (Jermaine Pennant), Dirk Kuyt (Peter Crouch)

Victor Valdes, Rafael Marquez, Presas Oleguer, Carles Puyol, Lilian Thuram (Eidur Gudjohnsen), Anderson Luis de Souza Deco, Andres Iniesta, Gaucho Ronaldinho, Xavier Hernandez Xavi, Samuel Eto'o (Ludovic Giuly), Lionel Messi

Referee: Fandel, H

Venue: Anfield

Attendance: 45,000

Liverpool 2
Barcelona 6

Goal Attempts:
Liverpool 18
Barcelona 8

On Target:
Liverpool 9
Barcelona 5

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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