SO, not for the first time this season, the Stadium Of Light has been witness to a game that has left Liverpool defeated and deflated.
Yet while the venue in the north-east of England was memorable only for Beachball-gate back in October, the more illustrious venue of the same name in Lisbon saw a contest that conjured up everything that is good – and bad – about European football.
Had Liverpool enjoyed a smidgeon of good fortune last night, there is no question they would have taken a giant step towards sealing a spot in the Europa League semi-finals and, in the process, exorcised the memories of fateful night here four years ago.
Yet, sadly, we find ourselves today telling the story of Liverpool’s 16th defeat of the campaign. But, thanks to a Swedish referee named Eriksson, it ranks as possibly the most exasperating – Jonas (should that read Jonah?) was, quite simply, atrocious.
This competition has many detractors in England but, on the continent, it is held in the highest esteem and heading to Benfica’s fabulous home – how Liverpool could do with a stadium such as this – there was no question that this was a significant occasion.
It had captured many an imagination, especially that of Steven Gerrard; he was anxious Liverpool did not fluff their lines.
Gerrard has endured some nights to forget on this ground during his career – England versus France during Euro 2004 instantly springs to mind – but the manner in which he started suggested he was ready to rectify the anomaly.
To every Liverpudlian’s great delight, his pace and drive enabled Rafa Benitez’s men to get off to the best possible start; when he surged down the left flank after eight minutes, Benfica midfielder Ramires crudely halted his progress and free-kick was duly awarded.
Taking the set piece himself, Gerrard resisted the urge to shoot and rolled the ball into the danger zone where Agger back-heeled past Julio Cesar – the last time the same men combined so thrillingly was in the 2007 Champions League semi-final against Chelsea.
Angel Di Maria, the much-vaunted Argentine flyer, fizzed a left-footed drive just over Pepe Reina’s crossbar; Oscar Cardozo spurned a glorious headed opportunity while one burst into the area from Fabio Coentrao had alarm bells ringing.
But for all Benfica’s pressing, the feeling persisted that the match official would be the biggest menace to Liverpool and, frustratingly, so it proved on the half-hour when Benfica’s captain Luisao clattered into Fernando Torres.
Some referees might have felt obliged to give Luisao a red card for his misdemeanour but, in the ensuing melee – and to everyone’s amazement – Eriksson actually ordered a Liverpool player from the pitch.
True, Ryan Babel should not have given Eriksson the option to take that action when he raised his hands to push Luisao away but he was clearly not the aggressor; a referee with more discretion would have managed the situation more appropriately.
Scandinavian referees have attracted a stream of negative criticism in recent months – think Tom Henning Obvrebo (Chelsea v Barcelona) and Martin Eriksson (France v Republic of Ireland) – and Eriksson proved to be more a turnip than Swede.
Such a disappointment. Babel has been a real positive in recent weeks and had shown himself to be a willing outlet here, always prepared to run at Maxi Pereira, even if he frequently bordered on the erratic.
His red card, though, not only left Benitez with a tactical problem to solve, it handed him a dilemma he could well have done without for next Thursday night’s return – once again, he is running dangerously low on available bodies.
With Maxi Rodriguez ineligible, Alberto Aquilani injured and Albert Riera disgraced – there was hardly widespread delight yesterday when he announced he wants to stay at Liverpool for the short-term – he has a paucity of experienced midfield options.
To make matters worse, Emiliano Insua was ruled out of the second leg, too, when he was booked for a tug on Pablo Aimar.
Assurance was not something you felt a great deal of last night, however, as Eriksson bungled his way through proceedings, awarding fouls when there was no infringement and waving play on when he should have spotted infringements.
It became inevitable Liverpool would suffer at his hands, as the home fans cranked up the volume, pressurising and screaming for retribution every time a red-shirted player went to ground; that came home to roost when Aimar tangled with Insua on 56 minutes.
A penalty was awarded and Cardozo smashed his effort past Reina to restore parity; if that was contentious, the one he gave not long after – with the aid of an extra official – was much clear cut when Jamie Carragher handled as he tried to cut out Contraeo’s cross.
Again Cardozo obliged, picking out the same corner with a much more subtle attempt, but, in truth, Liverpool should have been in front by then, as Torres – who had earlier had a goal disallowed – fluffed a glorious chance after being sent clear by Kuyt.
But this scoreline is retrievable and if this ‘character’ is again evident, Liverpool will progress – just pray the hopeless officials are nowhere to be seen.
BENFICA (4-1-3-1-1) – Julio Cesar: Pereira (Nuno Gomes 66), Luisao, David Luiz, Coentrao: Javi Garcia: Ramires, Aimar (Airton 8, Martins (Amorim 73); Di Maria; Cardozo.
Bookings: Luisao (29), Luiz (37),
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1) – Reina: Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua: Lucas, Mascherano: Kuyt, Gerrard (Benayoun 90 +1), Babel: Torres (Ngog 82). Bookings: Insua (45), Reina (74), Carragher (79). Sent off: Babel (31)
REFEREE: Jonas Eriksson (Sweden)
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