Reina to rescue as Liverpool struggle in Belgium
Standard Liege 0 Liverpool 0
When the fans' favourite anthem is AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" and the penalty-taker answers to the name of Dante, the omens do not seem terribly good for quiet progress towards the Champions League group stage and so it was for Liverpool in Belgium last night
Bonfim Dante's missed penalty kept them out of the inferno but the generosity of the Norwegian referee who awarded it was nothing compared with that of the linesman, six minutes into this game, who ruled that midfielder Marouane Fellaini's header had not crossed the goal-line – when it seemed to have done – before Pepe Reina clawed it to safety. Liège will also be wondering this morning how their Brazilian striker Igor de Camargo did not convert one of the half dozen opportunities and have Liverpool living on their nerves before the second leg on Wednesday week. Yossi Benyoun's goal-line clearance was also crucial.
Benitez side, rusty and semi-functioning on last night's show, will be confident of going through to the group stage though this result leaves them one unlucky break away from the catastrophe of elimination. That was why Benitez had demanded an away goal as the absolute minimum.
He did not pull any punches about a display in which his players' inability to control or deliver a ball with quality meant that not a single shot had been delivered on the Liège goal until a free-kick delivered in the 90th minute by Steven Gerrard, whom the manager was forced to bring on from the bench. "We were fortunate," Benitez said. "We were lucky not to concede a goal. Clearly we didn't play well but the result was good. The positive thing was the result and sometimes you don't seem to say too much because everybody knows. I told the players that it could be like this and very aggressive, it was difficult for us to get the ball."
The paucity of chances made it difficult for Benitez to assess the contribution that Fernando Torres and debutant Robbie Keane, who made way for Gerrard. "If the team don't play well the strikers don't get the chances," he said. But Keane's fervent desire to make something happen with Torres was certainly plain for all to see. When the Spaniard leapt above the Liège defence to nod down for Keane early in the second half the ball span away from him - but the Irishman grinned and flashed his thumbs at his striking partner. It was the first of the many half-chances on which Liverpool's hopes this season are resting.
For his part Torres might have expected more when Xabi Alonso released Keane down the right in space five minutes later, only to see him play the ball behind the Spaniard.
The young French midfielder Damien Plessis showed poise and distributed well at times, without imposing himself on the midfield. Perhaps inevitably it took Gerrard's presence, from the 67th minute, to do that. "Yes," Benitez said, when asked if concern about his team's progress had forced him to bring Gerrard on.
Benitez had admitted that he did not know all he might about the Belgian champions and he soon found out. They are a club with an industry befitting their location beside a belching steelworks and one last night nursing a sense of indignation that they had not been granted an automatic place in the group stages.
Liverpool might have been fretting about Gerrard's fitness but Liège fans adore Steven Defour and it was he who threatened the visitors, delivering the early free-kick headed down by Fellaini. The Liège players' protests were not so great when the ball had seemed to cross the line but they might still have scored. The ball was played back in for the prolific Zaire striker Dieu Mbokani, whose half shot was cleared off the line.
In a period of panic for Liverpool, Wilfried Dalmat ran free down the right to threaten again. His cross struck Andrea Dossena on the arm – just outside the penalty area it seemed, but inside according to referee Tom Henning Ovrebo. Dante's poor left-footed penalty kick was well saved by Reina with his legs.
The Liège coach, László Bölöni, sounded a refreshingly sanguine note about the goal that never was. "Somebody told me it's inside, somebody told me not," he said. "I think it's a moment and we have to forget. Our project was to learn against a team like Liverpool." Bölöni believes his side can prevail at Anfield. "The problem is that you have to score there and that's difficult. Liverpool when they arrived they slept a little bit. Now they have woken up," he said. Benitez was not so sure.
Standard Liège (4-4-2): Espinoza; Marcos, Mikulic (Nicaise, 89), Sarr, Dante; Fellaini, Dalmat, Defour, Witsel; Mbokani, Jovanovic. Substitutes not used: De Vriendt (gk), Goreux, Toama, Benko, Ingrao, Dembele.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Dossena; Kuyt (El Zhar, 83), Alonso, Plessis, Benayoun; Torres, Keane (Gerrard, 67). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Hyypia, Voronin, Pennant, Insua.
Referee: T Ovrebo (Norway).