An Evening of Frustration
It can never be good news when the manager of the team you support describes a performance as possibly the worst he has seen, but I'd rather hear that description of Liverpool's abject display last night than something more defensive. There have been times when Rafa Benitez's post-match comments following a poor performance focus on how different things could have been if we'd taken our chances, or on decisions from the match-officials. You could argue perhaps that last night was so bad, even Benitez was unable to find a positive to hide behind, but I'm inclined to give him some credit for accepting just how bad his team were.
My issue is with the 1st half. I, like Benitez, cannot think of an occasion when we have been as comprehensively outplayed. Those Fiorentina fans who were not too busy making an outstanding amount of noise within the stadium must have marvelled at how well their team's game-plan was working. Fiorentina dropped right off us when we had the ball in our own half, but they completely squeezed the life out of any possession we tried to maintain in their half. The more men we committed into attacking positions, the more vulnerable we looked when they broke. And the result was a half in which we didn't ever look like scoring, and in which they rattled in two.
But I hope that as well as delivering an accurate verdict on just how bad we were in that 1st half, Benitez is also able to work out exactly what went wrong. It's not enough to just say all the lads had a 'mare, which is essentially all we've heard from him so far. Why did our forwards find it impossible to find space? Why were they able to pose such a threat on the break?
The Liverpool manager quite rightly dished out a proper rollicking at half time, but his players weren't the only ones who had a bad evening in Florence. Benitez's decision to start Fabio Aurelio in central midfield looked eccentric before the game and disastrous by half-time. The Brazilian is a brilliant left-back when fully fit, but having played one other competitive game this season, a game in an unfamiliar position was surely not ideal. When you consider that Fiorentina were well-known to be a compact and well organised side playing in the game of their lives, the selection looks all the more mystifying.
In addition to this, I think a lot of Liverpool fans would grudgingly admit that Emiliano Insua's form has dipped a little of late. He's only young, and hopefully he will not follow in the footsteps of John Otsemobor, Steven Wright and Steven Warnock as promising full-backs who have earned a chance but ultimately have not capitalised. However, for now I think it's not a moment too soon that Aurelio has returned to full-fitness. Insua was left horribly exposed by Aurelio and Benayoun, to the extent that the ever-willing Dirk Kuyt had to be drafted in to bolster the left-flank. When desperate measures such as that are required before half-time, it's a sure sign that the manager has not got it quite right.
However, amid widespread and justifiable horror at the complete garbage that the men in red served up last night, it is important to remember that it is just one game. As long as Liverpool win their home games and avoid any more defeats, we will almost certainly qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League. And while such a run of results is obviously no mere formality, we surely won't play as badly again as we did last night. Moreover, although Sebastian Frey was not required to make a difficult save all evening, Fiorentina's threat disappeared with the half-time whistle.
I think the entire team and staff need to have a good hard look at themselves and remember that there are no easy away trips in the Champions League. The margins between success and failure are extremely small, and often scoring first can make all the difference. Therefore turning up last night and playing as though the right result would just come naturally for me amounts to a lack of professionalism. But I cannot see Benitez or his players making the same mistake twice in a single season, in fact I don't think I've ever witnessed such a thing since Benitez took control in 2005.
Having said that, it must be noted that Liverpool have lost every difficult game they have played so far this season. We have another difficult game this weekend, so if the current trend continues, we will have left our title hopes hanging by a thread before the shops have even put their Christmas decorations up. It goes without saying that this would represent a monumental disappointment following the progress seemingly made by the club last season.
Liverpool have no margin for error this weekend. But, at least this time around there will surely be no complacency.