ANFIELD’S illustrious European history is littered with firsts and last night it witnessed another entry – such a shame it was the one that was wanted least of all.
Had the situation gone as Rafa Benitez and his players anticipated, Fiorentina’s first visit to this fabled stadium could, in theory, have ranked alongside those spine-tingling occasions that were Olympiakos and Chelsea, Auxerre, St Etienne and Inter Milan.
It was, of course, supposed to be the evening when their Champions League hopes were salvaged with a high-energy, ultra-committed display that would have had supporters screaming themselves hoarse and shaking in giddy disbelief at the unfolding drama.
Instead, the 40,863 who braved the December cold watched the least significant game Liverpool have ever played on home soil in European combat, one were the goals scored and bookings accrued were of use only to statisticians.
Exits from this competition are not supposed to be so humdrum; the glitz and glamour associated with the Champions League demands drama, the kind that was apparent when Liverpool eventually fell last season in the quarter-finals at Stamford Bridge.
Frustratingly the tumble they have taken this time has been anything but heroic or dramatic and the funereal manner in which ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was sung by The Kop summed up Liverpool’s efforts against La Viola, Lyon and Debrecen.
No wonder. Watching Fiorentina go through the motions here, barely causing a much-changed Liverpool any real concerns for most of an instantly forgettable encounter, merely hammered home the feeling that a golden opportunity has been squandered.
Nothing should ever be taken for granted in football but the stark truth is Liverpool should have progressed from Group E without turning a hair and that’s why the shock that Europa League is on the agenda come the New Year has yet to subside.
A statement made with the aid of Red-tinted glasses, particularly given this latest result? No chance.
Look at things another way – do you envisage either Lyon or Fiorentina reaching the semi-finals, never mind actually getting to the Madrid final? Exactly.
Quite simply, Liverpool have only themselves to blame, the collapse in Matchday 3 against Lyon and that last-gasp leveller conceded in Stade Gerland are the incidents which Benitez and Company have been left to rue.
Defeat here, courtesy of second half goals from Martin Jorgensen and Alberto Gilardino, may have triggered more negative headlines and brought a six-game unbeaten run crashing to the ground, but it should never have happened.
Liverpool have played far worse in the past two months than they did against Fiorentina and the reason the Italians pilfered a last-gasp win was down to a wretched lack of concentration from a makeshift defence; predictably it proved oh so costly.
Only when the draw for the Europa League’s round of 32 is made will Liverpool – who are unseeded – discover how complicated their route to Hamburg will be, the fear now being they will be pitted against one of the more high profile teams in the competition.
Were they to fall at that particular hurdle, it would really be the biggest ignominy in this bitterly frustrating campaign but now is not the time for ultra negative thoughts – the situation must be salvaged, as quickly as possible.
It feels like an exceptionally long time since Liverpool supporters left a ground beaming ear to ear – even winning at Goodison Park last month was accompanied with complaints about the performance – and the gloom must be lifted.
Still, every cloud must have a silver lining and if one could be taken from this dead rubber then it has to be the industrious first start of Alberto Aquilani, hitherto a peripheral figure, in a Red shirt. Benitez was at pains in the build up to point out that snap judgements should not be formed on Aquilani, given the length of the lay-off he has endured and how he will need time to adapt to the rhythm of Liverpool’s play.
If the manager was trying to temper enthusiasm, the player did his best to fire it; quick thinking and slick passing, Aquilani exuded elegance and showed – touch wood – how the Reds will be so much the richer for his prolonged presence in the starting line-up.
All subtle flicks and sharp forward balls, it didn’t take long for the crowd to feed off his energy, Aquilani’s eagerness to please helped lift the tempo a couple of notches and gave the Reds a dimension they have sorely lacked.
There will, undoubtedly, be bigger challenges for Il Principino in the future but you only have to watch the way he carries himself on a field and the ease with which he uses possession to see he’s class performer – keeping him fit might prove the biggest challenge.
That, though, is something to be worried about at a later date, for now it is best to just enjoy the fact he has belatedly launched his career on Merseyside and hope he will play a part in transforming the club’s fortunes.
What really frustrates today is Liverpool should have been going into Sunday’s collision with Arsenal on the back of a win, as they created several clear chances – and how often have you been able to say that recently?
Yossi Benayoun’s glancing header, from Gerrard’s precise free-kick, gave them a deserved interval lead, while both Daniel Agger and the impressive Andrea Dossena came close to extending that advantage after the break.
Yet, ultimately, they were masters of their own fall once again, they switched off to allow Jorgensen the space to hammer home an equaliser, then leaving Gilardino in acres of space to score in injury time to give Fiorentina top spot.
A depressing end, then, to a depressing adventure; the challenge now is to ensure the depression does not stretch all the way through until May – making sure they can play Champions League football next season is the priority.
Copyright - Liverpool Echo
Final score Liverpool 1 – 2
(HT 1 – 0)
Bookings Montolivo 66
Liverpool's Percentage Fiorentina's Percentage
Goal attempts 12
On target 2
Liverpool Diego Cavalieri, Stephen Darby, Emiliano Insua, Javier Mascherano (Fabio Aurelio, 86), Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Alberto Aquilani (Daniel Pacheco, 76), Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt (Fernando Torres, 65), Yossi Benayoun, Andrea Dossena
Fiorentina Sebastien Frey, Per Kroldrup, Cesare Natali, Marco Donadel, Manuel Pasqual, Gianluca Comotto, Riccardo Montolivo, Mario Alberto Santana (Marco Marchionni, 71), Alberto Gilardino, Lorenzo De Silvestri (Jose Ignacio Castillo, 83), Martin Jorgensen (Juan Manuel Vargas, 72)
Referee Skomina, D