EVEN in dark times it pays to look for humour and just after their exit from the Champions League had been confirmed, Liverpool’s supporters found a positive.
“We’re the greatest team in Europe,” they proclaimed, “and we’re going to Germany!” Madrid might have been where they had dreamed of bringing this campaign to a glorious conclusion but now the focus has switched to Hamburg.
They may have travelled to the city of Harry Houdini’s birth hoping to see Liverpool stage another great escape but, as many feared, the reality proved different. For the first time since 2004, the Europa League is back on the Anfield agenda.
Despite securing only their second victory since September 26 by beating Debrecen in Budapest, Liverpool were subjected to more suffering and given the way this desperate season has been unfolding, we should not have expected anything different.
An early exit from the Champions League is, without doubt, the hardest thing Liverpool’s players and supporters have had to swallow and it would be easy to start ranting and raving about their myriad failings.
Reality, on the other hand, dictates otherwise. Fiorentina might have ended their hopes of lifting that famous silver trophy but there are still big prizes to be won and a shirt to be fought for – the Reds dare not hoist the white flag now.
This contest had the potential to be problematic for Liverpool, given Debrecen’s players knew they had nothing to lose and had the raucous backing of the locals here, who had turned out in vast numbers.
Within four minutes, however, it was clear to see the Reds were operating on a different level to Debrecen and, accordingly, they were soon in front thanks to a poacher’s strike from David Ngog.
There are certainly a large number of supporters who remain to be convinced by Ngog, a £1.5m signing from Paris St Germain in 2008, and questions have been asked frequently about whether he can cut it as one of Liverpool’s main strikers.
Should Ngog keep scoring, though, the number of sceptics will quickly start to dwindle; his tally for the season is now up to five after he bundled in from close range after Jamie Carragher had knocked down a Fabio Aurelio cross.
As he only celebrated his 20th birthday in April, it is reasonable to expect him to make significant improvement in the coming years.
Ngog was, without question, the brightest and busiest man in a red shirt during a one-sided opening 45 minutes and, with better fortune, could even have had the match ball in his possession by the break.
Twice powerful right-footed shots were beaten away by Debrecen’s goalkeeper and captain Vukasin Poleksic when they seemed destined for the corner of the net.
Yet for all their domination of possession and the fact this was a game Liverpool knew they could win in a canter, the most important element of the evening was the one they could do nothing about.
When you are waiting on a favour, it very rarely comes and once news started to filter through that Juan Manuel Vargas had smashed Fiorentina into the lead from the penalty spot, Liverpool’s fate in this competition was almost sealed.
Had you suggested when the group stage draw was made in August that Liverpool would fail to progress, there is little chance you would have been taken credibly but that is now the stark realisation.
Rafa Benitez and his players will, undoubtedly, be kicking themselves at missing a clear opportunity, regretting a calamitous first half in Florence when Stevan Jovetic scored twice and an even more desperate final 20 minutes at home to Lyon.
But the biggest and most costly episode in this tournament was when Sotirios Kyrgiakos slipped up in the Stade Gerland three weeks ago, allowing Lisandro to pilfer the goal that torpedoed their hopes.
Elimination stings, particularly at such an early stage, but it has happened before – never mind Basle, one generation of supporters will never forget Nottingham Forest, Widewz Lodz and Dinamo Tbilisi – and it would be ridiculous to think it won’t happen again.
Anfield’s Class of 2009 have paid the ultimate price for lacking the strength in depth to cope with a disastrous injury list.
The financial implications are not as grave as some may fear for a club that is grappling a huge debt – Liverpool budget to reach the last 16 of the Champions League – and a shortfall could be made up with a run in the Europa League.
If this setback is only going to prove a temporary one then there can be no wallowing in self-pity or sulking that the glamorous games they have played are off the agenda.
To ensure they have the chance to right this wrong, Liverpool have a huge fight on their hands to finish in the top four once more and anyone who thinks Tottenham, Aston Villa and Manchester City will slip away, is in for a rude awakening.
They might have won last night but it was certainly the most hollow Benitez has ever ‘celebrated’ during his time and the chorus of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ which emanated from the visitors’ section at the end here had a solemn tone to it.
Liverpool down the years have never been more dangerous than just after they have been knocked over – that quality is needed now like never before.
DEBRECEN (4-4-2): Poleksic; Mijadinoski, Meszaros, Fodor (Dombi 78), Bodnar; Kiss, Lazzko, Cvitkovics, Szakaly (Coulibaly 62); Szelesi, Rudolf.
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua; Lucas, Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard (Aquilani 90), Aurelio (Dossena 89); Ngog (Benayoun 77).
Goals – Ngog (4)
Bookings – Szlelesi (23).
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Holland).
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