Carroll factor fails to lift Reds
(Braga win 1-0 on aggregate)
Published 18/03/2011 | 05:00
John W Henry came to Anfield last night hoping to savour the sight of his £35m record transfer.
After watching Liverpool ejected from Europe for this, and most likely next year, he will have left wondering how much it will cost him to make that initial investment worthwhile. More money, more problems.
That Kenny Dalglish's team's interest in the Europa League is over is not Andy Carroll's fault. Liverpool's No 29 offered more than enough to suggest to Henry that he will not be throwing good money after bad.
But that the most expensive Englishman in football history could make such little impact proves that not following up that spending would be folly.
This was always going to be a nervy evening for Liverpool.
They are hardened enough European campaigners in these parts to know that one slip, against a well-organised Braga side, would have ended their hopes for this season and, in one fell swoop, for next. So abject was their early season form, so wretched their luck, that the league offers no solace.
"If Andy's header had gone in, in the first half, it could have been a different outcome," Dalglish lamented afterwards.
"You need to be really strong creatively if you are going to break down a very organised side or you need a bit of luck, and we certainly have not had much fortune over two legs."
Liverpool's anxiety will have been heightened by the surprise presence of the club's principal owner in the directors' box.
Entirely fitting, of course, that the man who spent so much on Carroll should be here to witness the striker's first start. But not for those players whose futures he has invested rather less heavily in, entirely relaxing.
Henry, even with his self-confessed passing knowledge of the game, would have been able to tell that his players were on edge.
A wrong pass here, a touch too many there. This was a night too delicate for anyone to feel at ease.
On countless occasions in Anfield's long, illustrious history, that nervousness has manifested itself in the restless, relentless energy which eventually sweeps the hosts to victory; in the opening exchanges, this seemed an evening cast in that tradition.
And at the centre of it all was Carroll.
It was his knockdown that allowed Joe Cole to steal in and draw from Artur the first save of note in the game; it was his rebound from the goalkeeper's parry that was deflected wide. It was Carroll who rose highest to head the subsequent corner wide.
He is raw. He is unrefined. But he makes things happen. There are lessons to be learned, though. When to judge a run, say, so that Maxi Rodriguez's ingenious back-heel might have found him onside, rather than off.
Or that, when it comes to continental combat, the rules are slightly different.
He will have been surprised to see, for example, that being pushed by one defender into another counts -- to the eyes of Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi, at least -- as a foul. Jumping near the goalkeeper, likewise, is frowned upon.
At times, merely being stronger and taller than an opponent can be interpreted as an infringement.
Carroll was not the only victim -- Lucas, too, might have had a penalty in the first half -- but it would be an exaggeration to suggest Rocchi was at the root of Liverpool's travails.
Instead, they were let down by the lack of a coherent strategy, by an absence of craft. They looked rather like a team that had a new toy, but had not read the instruction manual.
Carroll may stand at 6' 3" and possess the sort of physique to make most heavyweights blanch, but his presence does not compel a team to dispense with pass and move in favour of hoof and hope. A striker of his physical attributes requires a team full of pace and width, of pinpoint delivery and intelligent supply, to elicit his best.
They are traits this Liverpool, particularly in the absence of Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, lack.
They are traits Henry will know he must purchase in the summer. They are traits that will not come cheap.
Dalglish was pleased with the performance of Carroll, after two substitute appearances, even if the striker could not make the breakthrough.
"Overall we are pleased to see him back on the pitch and we were not disappointed with his contribution in any way," said the Scot.
That Carroll grew frustrated was evident -- he was lucky only to be booked for one lunge on Alberto Rodriguez -- but that said as much about his fitness as it did about his team's form.
Both are evidently some way short of the required standard.
The former will be rather easier, and cheaper, to solve than the latter. (© Daily Telegraph, London)