Sorrowful renditions of “The fields of Anfield Road” were well and truly drowned out tonight in the hills of Tuscany, as the chants of the Fiorentina faithful reverberated around Florence.
The medieval city which witnessed the birth of the renaissance, boasting the fathers of Italian painting like Cimabue and Giotto and the universal genius of Leonardo Di Vinci and Michelangelo, tonight played host to the two astute architects of Anfield: Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
Italian football may be suffering from a period of decline: scandals, failures on the pitch in Europe and ailing finances all woes of the Azzurri, but one cannot doubt the raw passion of the fans.
A rousing atmosphere at the Stadio Artemi Franchi saw the men who donned the viola shirts on the pitch morph into gladiators. Fiorentina exploded into life, pressing from the off, harrying the away side and producing biting tackles from the kick-off.
Liverpool immediately retreated deep into their own half, surrendering territory to the Florence crusade. Only some sparse forays by Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres provided the rugged away rearguard with some rare respite.
Upfront Mutu looked sharp, and any thoughts of the looming debt hanging over the Romanian’s head appeared dispersed for 90 minutes. Indeed Chelsea may consider chipping off some of the £14.7 million deficit after the striker ran Liverpool’s centre backs ragged.
Jovetic replaced the missing Gilardino and soon became the focal point of the Fiorentina attack. On the 15 minute mark, he fired a warning sign to the away side when his vicious shot was admirably blocked by Skrtel.
The Montenegrin was beginning to find his range, as another wild effort was dragged wide.
But then the experienced Cristiano Zanetti slotted Jovetic through on goal. Despite the desperate protestations of the Liverpool back four the offside flag didn’t come and the player calmly slotted the ball to the left of Reina.
As it hit the back of the net, the atmosphere reached a crescendo. The 33,000 strong crowd erupted with the same ferocity as Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 with the stadium bouncing in euphoria.
Liverpool looked stunned as they finally paid the price for wastefully surrendering possession to the hosts.
Jovetic’s strike saw the home side redouble their efforts. Vargas unleashed a shot full of venom which was punched clear by the grateful Reina.
On the right side of midfield, the marauding runs of Marchionni were providing Argentina’s newest recruit, Insua, with an abundance of problems. He endured a torrid night as he was tormented by the Italian.
In the 37th minute Fiorentina added a second, much to the anguish of the away side. Varga’s dangerous cross was steered home by that man Jovetic,who beat Reina at his near post.
The Liverpool midfield looked redundant as Fiorentina’s slick and decisive moves bypassed Lucas and Aurelio. It left Liverpool’s defence looking decidedly ragged.
In the city where Pinocchio became a real boy, Lucas is still waiting to become a real man. Patience is required here, but it remains to be seen how long the Liverpool fans will give the Brazilian.
Liverpool hung on until half time affording Rafa Benitez a welcome opportunity to rally his troops.
His few choice words appeared to have the desired effect. Liverpool marched out with a renewed belief and laid siege to the Viola half.
Yossi Benayoun had an early attempted blocked by the inspired Sebastian Frey, a name more familiar to English fans thanks to his glowing reputation in Championship Manager.
The resulting corner saw Lucas’ thumping header from close range fly over the bar when he really should have done better. It would ultimately be Liverpool’s best chance of the match.
Liverpool looked increasingly dangerous, enjoying a sustained period of pressure. But despite the best efforts of Dirk Kuyt, Gerrard and Torres, the Stadio Artemi Franchi dam held firm.
Kuyt propelled himself into the box, flicking past one defender, before chipping the ball over another before bizarrely deciding to head on to Benayoun opposed to hitting a left footed volley.
A great pass from Fabio Aurelio found Steven Gerrard in space. The Reds captain took a superb first touch but his shot was charged down by the heroic defending by Danielli.
An excursion into the box by Skrtel, saw the Slovakian centre back provide an accurate cross for Torres but the Spaniard blazed the ball high into the stands.
Jovetic endured a quiet second half but highlighted his skill in a sweeping move which saw the one-time Manchester United transfer target nutmeg Skrtel before almost unlocking the Liverpool defence once more.
The away side continued to press but to no avail with Gerrard heading over from a Ryan Babel cross. When Liverpool did finally have the ball in the net, it was ruled out, with Torres adjudged to have committed a foul.
The impetus began to trickle away for Gerrard and company. The skipper had one last attempt in the form of a wayward free kick before the German referee called time on proceedings.
In a night full of disappointment for Liverpool, Benitez will now be faced with the difficult task of rallying his troops for the crucial clash with Chelsea on Sunday.