Torres absence blunts Red edge
FC Utrecht 0
Published 16/12/2010 | 05:00
A substantial, admirably stoic crowd of 37,800 somehow survived a truly dreadful Europa League tie last night.
Even those who got in for nothing could have questioned the value for money. One supporter, dressed as Santa Claus, walked out early -- and you know it's serious when Father Christmas turns his back. The final whistle was greeted with a brief flurry of boos.
On the positive side, Liverpool remain unbeaten in 10 European games, no one got injured and stars like Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina were rested before the weekend's game with Fulham.
Liverpool's medical staff forced Roy Hodgson to back down over his intention to play Torres.
"I was certainly considering giving Fernando a start," he said. "I thought it would be a nice game for him and a chance for him to get his confidence back.
"But I also had a talk to our fitness people and they made me see sense that it was not the wisest thing to do."
His absence, however, left Liverpool with a blunt edge up front. Jonjo Shelvey hinted at his promise in the centre, while there was also confirmation of how the left flank does not suit Joe Cole.
Already safely through to tomorrow's draw, Liverpool had given out free tickets to children in an attempt to engender a lively atmosphere for a dead rubber (although the visitors had a chance of qualifying). The home fans were largely subdued in the first half, apart from one chant of "attack, attack, attack." More often than not, though, it was groans which tumbled from the Kop, particularly when Christian Poulsen kept losing the ball.
The Dutch fans were far nosier; 3,800 of them had paid €90 each for a return bus trip, keen to support their team, to see one of the great arenas of European football and salute one of their old boys, Dirk Kuyt, who started on the bench.
A few of the Utrecht players had talked of their desire to get Kuyt's shirt. Their talented 21-year-old striker, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, also had another aim: to show his "favourite club" that he was worth considering as a potential transfer target.
Having scored 19 goals this season, Van Wolfswinkel has been making a name for himself in Dutch football and was determined to create an impression. When Martin Kelly was short with a back-pass, Van Wolfswinkel darted into the box, but Martin Skrtel intervened.
The Utrecht No 9's dream of a starring role at Anfield ended shortly before the break, however, when he sustained a serious shoulder injury and was carried off on a stretcher, departing to sympathetic applause from Dutch and English fans alike. He was taken to hospital.
Barring poor Van Wolfswinkel's injury, the first half was largely devoid of note. Skrtel was captain for the night, partnering Danny Wilson, in a 4-4-2 formation headed by Nathan Eccleston and Ryan Babel. Eccleston's eagerness to impress went too far in the early stages, the young forward thudding into a late challenge on Mihai Nesu. After consultation with his officials, Kristinn Jakobsson waved a yellow card. It could have been red.
Eccleston looked busy, often spinning wide to the right or dropping back into midfield to collect the ball. Babel was rather too languorous for some tastes.
The theme of profligacy in possession was highlighted by Poulsen, who gave away the ball three times midway through a stultifying opening period. Many Liverpool fans, who have not taken to the Dane, shook their heads in frustration.
Liverpool's best attempt of the half -- pretty much their only one -- came from Milan Jovanovic, who cut inside from the right, dragging the ball away from Utrecht's captain, Michael Silberbauer, before letting fly with a 25-yarder that clipped the bar. Fabio Aurelio also tried his luck with a free-kick, but this time 'Pool were denied by the Utrecht wall.
Hodgson made a switch at the interval, giving Skrtel a break and sending on Sotiris Kyrgiakos, the armband changing hands. A more energetic Babel emerged as well, the former Ajax player continuing to earn jeers from the Utrecht supporters, but now really troubling their defence.
Hodgson twisted again, sending the promising Daniel Pacheco on to the left, removing Eccleston, and inserting Cole in the hole. Pacheco was quickly involved, drilling in a low right-footer that thudded into Michel Vorm's ribs. His first few touches were promising, but he was soon dragged down by the general poverty of the occasion. (© Daily Telegraph, London)