Friday 15 December 2017

Off-colour Reds avert disaster with late rally

Trabzonspor 1
Liverpool 2
(Liverpool win 3-1 on aggregate)

Liverpool's David Ngog reacts after missing a scoring chance during their Europa League play-off against Trabzonspor last night. Photo: Reuters
Liverpool's David Ngog reacts after missing a scoring chance during their Europa League play-off against Trabzonspor last night. Photo: Reuters

CRISIS averted. Five years ago yesterday, everything was coming up red in Monte Carlo as Liverpool, the reigning kings of Europe, added yet another trophy to their glittering list of continental honours, beating CSKA Moscow 3-1 to claim the Super Cup.

Victory deep in Turkey last night was vital solely to prevent everything going black. How the mighty fall.

For 83 long minutes, until Giray Kacar diverted Glen Johnson's low cross past his own 'keeper to hand Liverpool an insurmountable advantage, Roy Hodgson's side teetered on the edge. Their nerve had failed them almost immediately, allowing Teofilo Gutierrez to flick Trabzonspor ahead on the night and level on aggregate after only three minutes. Liverpool stood on the brink of humiliation.

Five-time European champions simply do not fail to reach the group stage of Europe's secondary competition, its consolation prize. Liverpool's managers do not find themselves eliminated from continental combat as early as August. Until Kacar's error, and Dirk Kuyt's late strike to add gloss to the scoreline, Hodgson's reign risked getting under way in the utmost ignominy.

By deciding not to risk Fernando Torres, by naming a side without as many as five first-team regulars, Hodgson made clear here that Europe is not a priority in his first season at Anfield. The puff of his cheeks, the look of relief, when referee Ivan Bebek signalled Liverpool's safe passage to the group stage, though, spoke volumes. Hodgson knew he had danced with despair.

"We were looking down the barrel," said Hodgson. "You saw their incredible support and how fanatical their fans are. To get a result here is something important that will stand us in good stead."

That might be an understatement. There is a frailty, a fragility about this Liverpool side, a hangover from last season, the sort of campaign where everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. It is exacerbated when Steven Gerrard and Torres are absent. Rather than attempt to shoulder their burden, for too long Liverpool's foot-soldiers have chosen to wilt.

If that was Trabzonspor's best hope, they could not have wished for a better setting. This was hardly the sort of welcome to hell for which Turkish clubs have made their name, but the noise was incessant, deafening, the pitch dreadful and the rain torrential.

For the opening exchanges, Liverpool's played like they were. Kuyt was caught in possession by Gustavo Colman, a relentless jolt of Argentine energy, who skimmed a cross into the path of Gutierrez. The Colombian, a traditional, almost anachronistic poacher, duly turned the ball past Pepe Reina. The Avni Aker stadium exploded. Trabzonspor poured forward, scenting a kill.


Ibrahima Yattara, taking a break from the 45 minutes of torment he afforded the stand-in left-back Martin Kelly, might have converted Selcuk Inan's free-kick. Reina kept out a fierce drive from Colman low to his left. Liverpool rocked.

Slowly, though, they asserted their authority. For all the criticism of this Liverpool squad, for all that some players seem not to care enough and, all too often, those that do lack the quality to warrant a place in the side, it still boasts a core of European experience. Jamie Carragher marshalled his troops, Lucas Leiva and Christian Poulsen harried and harassed.

But in the absence of Torres and Gerrard, deprived of the crown jewels, Liverpool are all but toothless. They scarcely drew a save out of Onur Kivrak in the opening period -- a weak effort from Lucas all that brought him into action before the break.

After the interval -- and perhaps a few choice words from an irate Hodgson -- the visitors improved.

Twice David Ngog should have secured Liverpool's safe passage, first heading Joe Cole's teasing cross wide from four yards, then placing his shot the wrong side of the post after twisting past Giray Kacar. Fabio Aurelio saw a free-kick deflected just wide.

In the end, they required a slice of good fortune -- one which, given the year they have endured, they may feel they deserve -- to erase the threat of extra-time, the spectre of embarrassment and secure their place in the group stages.

Glen Johnson, otherwise an instantly forgettable presence, burst down the right, producing the sort of dynamism Liverpool had sadly lacked all evening and which his £17m move was supposed to provide. His low cross was aimed at Ngog, but found only the boot of Kacar. Relief all round.

Kuyt's strike, following up Daniel Pacheco's fierce drive, secured Liverpool's victory. There will be no attempts to paint this as a triumph, though. It is enough, for now, simply to halt the descent, to avoid the shame of a dark night on the shores of the Black Sea. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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