Liverpool got a new season of European football underway last night against unfamiliar opposition in the form of Hungarian outfit Debreceni. The Reds come away from their opening group stage match with three points following a narrow victory at Anfield.
However it may well be the Hungarian champions who return to Central Europe with the greater positives to take from the match, as was reflected in the contrasting responses of the opposing fans at the final whistle. The strong travelling contingent from Hungary were cheering their team off the field at full-time.
Liverpool went into the match with an unchanged starting eleven from their convincing victory over Burnley. With Dirk Kuyt operating in the ‘hole’ behind Fernando Torres, as Steven Gerrard continued in a deeper midfield role, and Yossi Benayoun switched to a wider role of the right.
Kuyt’s instinctive strike on the stroke of half-time ultimately settled the issue. But Liverpool appeared rather ineffective and disjointed for long periods as Debreceni often succeeded in frustrating the home side.
A lack of penetration in midfield and a succession of mistakes and misplaced passes often left the home crowd, and Rafa himself, frustrated and searching for more. So much so, that even ever-reliable captain Gerrard seemed to catch the bug with an unusually high number of misplaced passes.
As the first Hungarian representatives at this stage of the competition since Ferencvaros 14 years ago, Debreceni were set up to be defensively compact and frustrate, as expected.
Liverpool dominated possession from the first whistle but seemed unable to muster the necessary penetration and efficiency in the final third in order to cause the visiting defence many problems during the opening exchanges.
To their credit, Debreceni were well-organised and committed, in what could well have been billed as the biggest match in their relatively modest history. Although an evident deficiency in quality meant that they were never truly able to threaten a below-par Liverpool side, aside from an early effort from Peter Czvitkovics, which Pepe Reina saved well.
Liverpool struggled for tempo for much of the first half and created little in the way of chances, with Torres rarely in the game. However the Reds were finally able to assert some pressure on the Hungarians as the half progressed. Gerrard had a couple of chances and Albert Riera was denied, before Kuyt broke the deadlock in half-time injury time.
The Dutch forward wasn’t at his reliable and energetic best on Wednesday evening, but his instinctive finish on the rebound from Torres’ run and shot provided further evidence of his increasing reliable goal threat.
Kuyt’s third strike of the season brought him level with Torres and Benayoun and continued his impressive goals return in European competition in a Red shirt.
The second half performance was fairly reminiscent of the first. A lack of flow and penetration to Liverpool’s play persisted. But with Debreceni unable to pose a genuine threat to Reina’s goal, the Reds were never urgently required to add to Kuyt’s opener.
With Gerrard limited slightly by his deeper role, Benayoun provided to main threat and supply line for Torres. A couple of characteristic mazy runs and shots from the in-form Israeli in the second half threatened to light up the affair.
But Benayoun’s threat was perhaps curbed by his positioning wide on the right. He seems most effective operating in a free role in the centre, as he did for most of the previous game against Burnley.
Liverpool were able to apply more concerted pressure in the second period. But Reira, Kuyt and Torres were never really able to raise their games. Although Riera did find himself in a couple of good positions where he perhaps should have done better with, before being replaced for a cameo role by Ryan Babel on 80 minutes.
Gerrard was unable to inspire more goals, as he did in the recent victory over Bolton. Although a stunning volley from the captain from outside the penalty area midway through the half was just inches too high.
The lively Benayoun had chances to double the lead as the match drew to a conclusion. And with the Reds protecting just a narrow one goal advantage and Debreceni growing in confidence, there was always a tinge of nervousness that the underdogs might snatch a surprise result on their Champions League debut.
French striker Adamo Coulibaly had a half chance but the Hungarians ultimately lacked quality when it mattered.
The Liverpool performance was similar to many past early season home games, against teams set up to frustrate. The Reds clearly haven’t discovered their top form just yet and are lacking any sustained pattern to their play.
Hopefully that will all come sooner rather than later with the imminent availability of Alberto Aquilani hopefully going some way to achieving that much-needed inventiveness and penetration in midfield.
But, most importantly, Rafa and his side come away from the game with the three points and a solid start to their Champions League campaign.
Liverpool were in a proverbial ‘no-win’ situation against the Hungarian minnows. Perform well and win comfortably and it would have been expected. In the end, they never really needed to.
Looking at Group E in its early stages, Liverpool, as favourites should have few problems progressing. However Rafa Benitez has acquired enough experience over recent seasons to be aware that things don’t always run that smoothly, and three points from the opening match is exactly what was required.
15 Benayoun (Mascherano ’87 mins)
11 Riera (Babel ’80 mins)
18 Kuyt (Aurelio ’90 +2 mins)
Man of the Match:
Fairly tough call, with a few stand-out performances on the night. Carragher was a solid leader at the back and Reina was commanding as ever when required, but neither were truly tested.
Benayoun, whilst not quite reaching the heights for last weekend, continued his excellent form and always seemed to be the main attacking threat from the right-wing.