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Liverpool beat the nerves to show clinical edge in time of need


By Phil Dickinson.

Liverpool progressed into the semi finals of the Europa League last night after an emphatic 4-1 victory against Portuguese champions elect, Benfica, finally putting to rest the ghost of their 2006 Champions League exit.

And The Eagles started the game like a team 6 points clear at the top of their domestic league, a team who have only lost one domestic game all season. While Liverpool, if the truth be told, started the game like an established Champions League outfit mournfully adrift of a return to Europe’s premier competition – slightly nervous, edgy and very much aware that failure would all but end hopes of salvaging pride from the 2009-2010 season.

In the end, it was sweeping counter-attacking football and clinical finishing that saw Liverpool through, The Reds battling for long spells to contain their Portuguese opponents and punishing them when the chances came along.

Liverpool’s third in particular was a devastating example of counter-attacking football, Yossi Benayoun finding Kuyt on the right whose early cross was slammed home by Fernando Torres on 58 minutes.

Liverpool produced ten efforts on goal during the game, 4 of the 5 that were on target hit the back of Cesar’s net. In Liverpool’s previous game, a disappointing draw away at Birmingham, Benitez’s men managed 16 attempts on goal and only converted once.

The margin of 3 goals probably flattered Liverpool on the balance of play, but the goals came at important times, points in the game where the uneasy tension could have undone The Reds. On another night, Cardozo’s 70th minute free-kick could have signalled a very desperate and uncomfortable end to the game. Torres’ expert finishing on 82 minutes thankfully prevented that.

And once again, playing at home, the Reds showed a different and more positive side to their game. While Benitez has recently admitted making mistakes this season and although his tactical system is riddled with deficiencies, against Portsmouth and Sunderland Liverpool showed they still have a squad capable of producing high tempo, flowing football, and last night against Benfica showed they can contain sides with an abundance of flair and confidence and punish them on the break. This is a squad with strengths; it is squad that can win things given the right direction and instruction.

But even last night’s game could not hide that this is a Liverpool squad with, by the club’s standards and even by Rafa Benitez’s standards, extremely fragile confidence. They seem like a squad trying to stay positive, battling through and remaining loyal to the club’s cause, but a squad relentlessly hoping more than believing.

There is belief there, and of course with every passing round the belief that they can secure the Europa League grows, but it is not a total belief. Too much damage has already been done, too many mistakes made by the manager in terms of man management.

And since the players realise that there is so little room for error now, with the threat of a whole season’s work in a short footballing career being universally labelled a disaster looming over them, the pressure that is building makes it difficult for them to play their natural game at all times. At gruelling times like these, where levels of belief aren’t what they should be, the ability of key players to take their chances and to settle the nerves of players and fans at crucial moments becomes all the more important.

And with that in mind, to me, Benitez’s decision to take off Fernando Torres against Birmingham becomes all the more puzzling. Although, as Benitez’s loyal followers have suggested, the fresh legs of Ngog probably did allow Liverpool to create more chances in the final part of the match, even a jaded Fernando Torres might only have needed one of those chances to settle the nerves and, ultimately, settle the game.

It will take a summer of resting, rebuilding and reinvesting to get this Liverpool squad fully believing again, to patch up their brittle confidence. It will be a summer of change and, for a time, uncertainty. But if Liverpool keep the spine of their squad together, they can bounce back next year. The arrival of fresh attacking options in the shape of Standard Liège striker Milan Jovanović will lift the squad, as will Pepe Reina signing a new 6 year contract this morning.

But Liverpool have to make do with what they have for now. Whatever problems remain, there is work to be done this season.

What last night showed is that what will make the difference between a disastrous 2009-2010 and one that Liverpool fans can look back on with a semblance of pride will be the ability of certain key players, particularly Fernando Torres, to make the most of the chances they are given – even more so than usual.

Confidence may again wane at times, Liverpool may be reduced to battling at times, and nervousness may creep in at times. When it does, Liverpool will be praying the likes of Torres, Gerrard, Benayoun, Kuyt and, now it seems, even Lucas can keep their cool in front of goal.

What is certain is that The Reds have not yet reached the levels of belief and confidence to make this run in plain sailing. It’s going to be tough and Liverpool will need to be as clinical as they were against Benfica, which is a whole lot more clinical than they were at St. Andrews on Sunday.

The next challenge for Benitez’s men is fellow Europa League hopefuls Fulham, who it has to be admitted have shocked everyone this season, both domestically and even more so on the continent. Roy Hodgson has to be given an enormous amount of credit for what he has done with the Craven Cottage club. For a squad of Fulham’s size to reach the semi finals of a major cup competition in its first season in Europe, having knocked out Juventus, Wolfsburg and holders Shakhtar Donetsk, is utterly remarkable, one of the most surprising feats in recent football history.

It will be another difficult home game for Liverpool and could end up being the dress rehearsal for what, at the start of the season, would have been an unlikely Europa League final. And Reds fans will have close eyes on events at Eastlands and White Hart Lane as Liverpool once again look desperately to close the gap on their rivals for 4th place.

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