The Standard Liège supporters hoisted a huge banner of Che Guevara above their heads before kick-off here, embracing the role of the underdog aiming to overthrow a wealthy elite and spread revolution through the Champions League. Like the face that adorns a million student bedrooms, the Belgian champions had their target running scared. And, also like Guevara, they were unable to finish the job off. Not for the first time under Rafael Benítez in Europe, Liverpool have been reprieved.
"Tonight Liverpool were a little bit asleep but now they will wake up," reflected the Liège manager, Laszlo Boloni. He was right to sound so regretful. Liverpool could and should have conceded at least three goals while they slumbered. That they somehow returned home with only professional pride damaged, having produced a performance that will give their manager nightmares, suggests fortune is again on their side as they bid to complete a hat-trick of European Cup triumphs in Rome next May.
Boloni's team were denied one legitimate goal by a Norwegian referee who officiated Liverpool's friendly in Oslo last week, failed to beat José Reina from the penalty spot, squandered one glorious chance and had another cleared off the line in a dominant display. Their guests' response was a 91st minute free-kick by Steven Gerrard, rested as a precaution against injury, that sailed into the arms of Aragon Espinoza, the Liège goalkeeper's only save of the night.
"The performance was poor but the result was good," admitted Benítez. "It is always important not to concede away from home and with the second leg at Anfield there will have to be a massive difference. I didn't need to say much to the players afterwards because they know it was a bad performance."
Liverpool have made life difficult for themselves at this stage of the competition before, but never have they invited as much trouble as last night. "I am surprised with how we played because the team had been playing in pre-season with a lot of confidence," added Benítez.
The movement of the Liège forwards, Dieu Mbokani in particular, disarmed a Liverpool defence that is yet to erase its deficiencies at set-pieces, while the distribution of the home captain Steven Defour from
midfield put his opponents to shame. Eleven minutes in and Benítez's team were lucky not to be trailing by two and staring at elimination.
Their first almighty escape arrived following a foul by the awful Alvaro Arbeloa on Marouane Fellaini. From the subsequent free-kick the midfielder escaped a static green line and faced a gaping goal to Reina's right, but Fellaini's effort was weak, emanating from his shoulder instead of his head. The ball struck the inside of the Liverpool post and, to a naked eye that was level with the 18-yard line, appeared to spin over the line before Reina clawed it to safety. Referee Tom Ovrebo looked to his assistant, the flag stayed down, and luck shone on the visitors. "I don't like the fact that he refereed Liverpool's game with Valerenga," said Boloni, "but what can you do?"
The officials got their next major call wrong too, but this time it counted against Liverpool as the same assistant adjudged Andrea Dossena inside the penalty area when Wilfried Dalmat's cross struck him on the arm. Dante Bonfim stepped forward to take the dubious penalty but Reina saved the defender's poor effort with his legs before gratefully clutching a miscued clearance from Dirk Kuyt.
Liverpool were dreadful and needed 30 minutes just to retain possession. The much-vaunted strike partnership of Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane displayed an inevitable lack of understanding, with the £20.3m summer signing from Tottenham anonymous on his Champions League debut. "The team didn't play well so the strikers couldn't play well. Reina was our man of the match," said Benítez.
Igor De Camargo missed an open invitation to head inside Reina's near post in the second half, while Yossi Benayoun cleared a ball that was rolling towards his goal-line. Liverpool were asleep, but at least their sheet was clean.
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