the Torres substitution
By Ben Blackmore - Setanta Sports
Hands up, how many of us have ever taken
one look at Cheryl Cole and then asked the question: “How
the hell did Ashley do it?”
How did Ashley Cole manage to get a girl like that? It’s one
of those things that will always remain a mystery.
Now here’s another one. One that has gone on for at least
nine years and most probably beyond that.
Why do managers, when defending a lead with only minutes to
go, take off their best players?
It happened in Wednesday’s Champions League clash between
Liverpool and Standard Liege. Dirk Kuyt grabbed the late
goal, and immediately Fernando Torres was pulled off for
Now obviously Rafa Benitez’s reasons would centre partly on
time-wasting, partly on adding defensive stability.
Fair enough. But why Torres over, say, Nabil El Zhar - who
played well but offers much less defensively?
Torres defends from the front like a lion. His mere presence
would keep at least two defenders occupied. He can chase
balls into corners and he is one of Liverpool’s tallest
players, which was particularly crucial when Liege’s giants
got a corner in the dying seconds.
He was hardly being rested for Aston Villa and, even though
he had put in a 128-minute shift, it’s hard to believe a fit
24-year-old couldn’t have squeezed two more minutes out of
Furthermore, to throw on Plessis – a nervy youngster who is
not up with the pace of the game – represents something of a
It doesn’t only concern Torres either. Last season Liverpool
were holding onto a 1-0 lead at home to Everton, and off
came Steven Gerrard.
In the end both substitutions made little difference, but
the point is that they could.
This is by no means an attack on Benitez. All managers do
it. Arsene Wenger took off Cesc Fabregas in the dying
moments of Arsenal’s famous 1-0 win over Real Madrid.
And who can forget the lessons of 1999, when Bayern Munich
withdrew their two best, two most influential players – only
to see Manchester United snatch the European Cup from their
grasp at Camp Nou.
That day Ottmar Hitzfeld withdrew his best ball-retainer
Mario Basler and, most crucially, his greatest leader of men
With so much leadership, so much experience, off the
One day it will happen again. After all, for Cheryl Cole you
can already read Abbey Clancy.
'lucky charm' Kuyt
Rafael Benitez hailed his European lucky
charm Dirk Kuyt as Liverpool scrambled their way into the
Champions League group stages.
They eventually beat an excellent Standard Liege side 1-0 on
the night, and on aggregate, with Kuyt scoring the winner
two minutes from the end of extra-time.
Benitez’s delight with Kuyt’s contribution was tempered by
the news that skipper Steven Gerrard will have a groin
operation today and miss both of England’s World Cup matches
against Andorra and Croatia.
He will also be out of Liverpool’s trip to Aston Villa on
Sunday, and may miss the home game with Manchester United on
Liverpool have clearly made a tactical decision to limit
Gerrard’s loss to the Anfield club by deciding on an
operation after last night’s game.
England boss Fabio Capello will no doubt be disappointed
with that decision, but Liverpool clearly wanted to get the
maximum out of Gerrard in the third qualifying round before
agreeing to the operation.
Benitez said: "We decided that Steven would play through the
pain against Liege and then have the operation.
"He may not be fit for the Manchester United game, but he
certainly will be okay for the first group stage match next
Benitez revealed that Gerrard has been playing through
constant pain this season.
It was clear that Gerrard was not at his best last night,
and he will now go under the knife to make sure he is fit to
lead Liverpool into the group stages in September.
"He has a groin problem so he will have an operation and
could be out for 10 to 15 days. It is not serious but we
need to do it now," Benitez said.
"He has been playing some games in pain, not being 100% fit
and we decided that this was the best moment for the
"He had a problem for the first game with Liege, and also
when he went away to play for England in their friendly last
week against the Czech Republic.
"We talked with the doctor yesterday and today, and it was
decided that Steven would play in this match with the pain.
But now we will have to get the situation solved."
Of Kuyt’s match-winning contribution, Benitez added: "I was
delighted with Dirk Kuyt, his goal was a reward for all the
effort he puts in for us. He is amazing.
"His work is tremendous, he keeps going right to the end and
makes a tremendous contribution to our side."
Liverpool, despite another worrying display, are now in the
group stages draw today in Monaco.
Benitez said: "Obviously there is some relief with the
result. We knew it would be a difficult game against a
quick, well-organised team.
"The positive was that we played a little better than
recently - we want to win trophies but we also understand
the need for money."
Gerrard: Liverpool's spirit saved
Champions League blushes
By Tony Barrett - Liverpool Echo
Steven Gerrard today admitted Liverpool’s
last gasp extra time win over Standard Liege was too close
for comfort – as the Reds skipper prepares to go under the
knife to cure a troublesome groin injury.
Liverpool had Dirk Kuyt to thank for a winning goal deep
into added time after the Belgian champions had proven a
tough nut to crack in last night’s Champions League
Rafa Benitez’s men now go into today’s draw for the
lucrative group stages but Gerrard – who played through the
pain barrier last night and is expected to be out of action
for between 10-15 days following surgery – admits he is
relieved to have made it through.
He said: “I think you have to give them credit. They’ve come
to Anfield and were very organised and they’ve stopped us
“They are a big, physical side and they were difficult to
“But as the game went on we started to move the ball quicker
and there was a lot more tempo to our play.
“It was a bit too close for comfort but we’re just pleased
that we’re through.
“I think there was a slight improvement on our previous
games. Like I’ve said, the tempo was a bit better and we’ll
certainly take that positive.
“It was all about qualification tonight. We’ve done it the
hard way but we’re in the draw and that’s the main thing.
“I think we showed good character. We know there will be
times during the season when things aren’t going to be rosy
and we’re not going to play great all the time.
“When this does happen it’s all about sticking in there,
working hard for each other and getting the result, and
thankfully we’ve managed to do that tonight.
“It’s also important to remember that we’ve still got
players to come back that will make the squad stronger in
the coming weeks and hopefully we will get a few more
players in before the transfer window shuts.
“But when it comes down to it, if you’d asked me a couple of
weeks ago if I’d be happy with two wins out of two in the
league and making it through to the Champions League, I
would obviously have taken it.”
Gerrard praised keeper Pepe Reina for a couple of
outstanding first half saves which stopped Standard from
scoring what would have been a crucial away goal.
And he also told of his relief when Kuyt’s close range
volley gave Liverpool the win they so desperately needed.
“We expect that from Pepe because he is one of the best
keepers in the world,” he said.
“You can always rely on him if you’re under the cosh and
he’s done well for us again tonight.
“The main feeling when the goal went in was relief because
you don’t want to go to penalties because it’s a bit of a
lottery, although you know you’ve always got a chance with
“It was a great ball by Ryan and a great finish by Dirk and
I think we were all delighted to see it go in.”
Gerrard only featured in last night’s game following a
consultation with club doctor Mark Waller and Benitez, and
the Liverpool captain will today undergo groin surgery in a
bid to clear up a problem which has troubled him for the
He said: “I’m struggling with that at the moment but I hope
to find out more in the next couple of days.”
to Euro elite entry
By Ian Doyle - Daily Post
So the march towards the Eternal City can
now begin in earnest.
But it was an unimpressive Liverpool that stumbled into the
group stages of the Champions League on a night of high
tension at Anfield.
The cheers at the final whistle were joined by an almost
audible sigh of relief as Rafael Benitez’s side scraped past
Standard Liege in their third qualifying round tie.
Concerns over early-season form were fully justified as
Liverpool laboured to overcome the Belgians.
Less than four months after coming within an own goal of an
eighth European Cup final, there was a genuine danger
Benitez’s men would be forced to contemplate rubbing
shoulders with Europe’s lesser lights in the Uefa Cup.
Instead, Liverpool go into the hat for today’s draw in the
knowledge they are unlikely to be given a bigger fright in
the competition all season.
Benitez believed his team needed two goals to progress, but
an 118th-minute strike from Champions League specialist Dirk
Kuyt proved sufficient.
The club’s owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, could ill
afford to miss out on the estimated £12m windfall brought by
qualification to the group stages of the Champions League.
Neither could Benitez, given the squad strengthening that
Liverpool so clearly still require given the evidence of
The traditional tomato-throwing festival of La Tomatina took
place in a town near to Benitez’s former club Valencia
But while the manager was spared a similar red face, he can
expect a critical pelting.
Standard, who were beaten in both legs in their previous
encounter with Liverpool back in the 1965-66 European Cup
Winners Cup, had conceded 11 goals on their last two visits
to England when thrashed by ManCity and Arsenal.
There was no chance of a repeat last night. Well organised,
determined and with confidence oozing throughout the team,
Standard were everything Liverpool were not.
Going into the game, Liverpool boasted a 100% record in five
games against Belgian opposition at Anfield and had never
been beaten at this stage of the competition.
Benitez made just one change from the weekend’s last-gasp
victory over Middlesbrough, the fit-again Fabio Aurelio
replacing Andrea Dossena.
Standard welcomed back central defender Oguchi Onyewu from
suspension, the only alteration to the team that gave
Liverpool such a fright at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne a
Olympic medallists Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva were
saluted pre-match along with boxer and Liverpool fan David
Price, who won a bronze.
But Liverpool needed the midfield pair on the pitch during
the game, not before it.
Standard coach Laszlo Boloni claimed an away victory last
night would represent the biggest by a Belgian side in
Europe in 40 years.
The evidence of a one-sided first leg suggested otherwise.
And, as in Liege, the visitors dominated the chances in the
opening period with Pepe Reina once again Liverpool’s best
The keeper produced a brilliant save in the seventh minute,
diving at full stretch to his right to turn away a 20-yard
snapshot from Dieumerci Mbokani, rightly identified as a
dangerman by Benitez before the game.
Reina made a similar stop in the 18th minute. With
Liverpool’s defence slow to react to a ball pumped into the
box, an unmarked Igor De Camargo completely missed his kick
from eight yards out but retrieved possession and crossed
for Marouane Fellaini to improvise a volley Reina did well
Marcos then sent an ambitious effort dipping wide as
Standard gave Liverpool little encouragement going forward,
Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane well shackled by the robust
centre-back pairing of Onyewu and Mohamed Sarr.
The home side were largely restricted to shots from range.
Goalkeeper Aragon Espinoza beat out a curling Fabio Aurelio
free-kick early on, Yossi Benayoun scuffed wide after a
driven Gerrard pass and Xabi Alonso was off target from
Kuyt later headed a deep Aurelio corner wide at the far
post, while Liverpool screamed for a penalty when Axel
Witsel accidentally handled while attempting a sliding
clearance. It would have been a harsh call against the
Standard man, but no harsher than the penalty Dossena
conceded a fortnight ago.
Liverpool finally roused themselves after the interval.
Torres ended a trademark slaloming run with a shot that was
blocked when a pass to the unmarked Kuyt was the better
option, the Dutchman then struck wide and, in a rare clear
opening, Keane couldn’t convert a low Alvaro Arbeloa cross.
Keane had been part of the Inter Milan team shocked by
Swedish outsiders Helsingborg in the qualifying round back
in 2000, but enjoyed no greater fortune last night,
sacrificed along with Benayoun as Benitez sought to address
a chronic lack of width by once again introducing Ryan Babel
and Nabil El Zhar from the bench.
Standard were on the defensive for most of the second half
but almost snatched victory in the last minute when De
Camargo headed wide.
Arbeloa tested Espinoza from distance in extra time while El
Zhar could easily have been awarded a penalty after going
down in the box under the weight of a rash challenge.
Standard, though, couldn’t hold out and with two minutes of
extra time remaining Babel, marauding down the left, cut on
to his right foot and sent in a deep cross which Kuyt
Lessons must be learned
from Liverpool's narrow victory
Comment by Nick Smith - Liverpool Daily Post
Even just a handful of games into the
season, a few lessons have already been learned. Mainly,
that playing badly is okay if you get the result.
And apparently, if you’re getting really carried away with
Liverpool’s 100% start to the Premier League campaign, it’s
the mark of champions.
But it’s not the mark of European champions. In fact, at the
moment it’s the mark of nothing more than a confused bunch
of under-achievers desperately wondering where their next
coherent passing move is coming from and tiding themselves
over with face-saving interventions at opportune times.
And when all else failed, that was what they fell back on
once again last night, only this time with the added
indignity of needing the best part of two hours to do it.
The hope was that Liverpool would up their game
considerably, not just from that dreadful first leg in
Belgium, but the subsequent underwhelming league games.
But the only standard they raised last night was the one
from Liege – giving them a belief that they could inflict
one of the home side’s biggest European upsets.
For most of this second leg, the home threat was minimal and
that is worrying.
It’s the competition in which they are supposed to thrive
not flounder. Build-up was tentative and often turgid,
narrow enough to make cycle lanes jealous.
And the most alarming aspects of Liverpool’s current
inability to open things up was almost exposed to the full
by their opponents last night.
Standard weren’t simply sitting back and smiling about the
lack of variety and invention that stood before them.
They wanted to capitalise, sensing – as anyone would in the
current circumstances – that an away goal would be
relatively easy to defend.
They should have got it too in an early period that mirrored
the opening to the first leg two weeks earlier, the
brilliant Belgian supporters packing half of the lower
Anfield Road ensuring the atmosphere was just as inspiring
to their heroes too.
And it was a similar story in midfield, where the tough
tackling and tight marking squeezed all the control and
composure out of Liverpool’s play.
They sat back a bit more in the second half, making the
priority to continue their relentless frustrating of the
five-times European champion. As a result it was all too
tense for everyone’s comfort – except Sir Alex Ferguson,
watching on and wondering what squeaky-bum time was doing
turning up in August.
A complete lack of sustained pressure in the Standard final
third ensured supporters grew as impatient as Gareth Barry
for Liverpool to make their move, and the depressing
inevitability of a second successive goalless draw against a
team who were considered more sub-Standard when the draw was
made, slowly dawned on them.
With Aston Villa and Manchester United imminent, you wonder
how long Rafael Benitez and his players can get away with
this. The prospect of returning players alongside a couple
of new ones at least points to future positives.
And, of course, the final outcome that seals a place in
today’s group stage draw, engineered by the introduction of
that rare commodity – width, courtesy of Ryan Babel and his
fine cross that Dirk Kuyt steered in.
In the end, it was a good job that late winner finally
Because progress had to be made.
Not being in the main draw for the Champions League is
simply not an option for Liverpool.
Similar to the philosophy some Olympians hold of “gold is
for winners, anything else for losers.” (Not that Javier
Mascherano would have dared tell Beijing silver medallist
David Price that during their pre-match parade last night).
But it’s not just the golden riches and rewards on offer
that matters at Anfield – in fact, as Rafael Benitez
suggested in the build-up to last night’s second leg, he’d
take silver any day.
Whether the cash-careful owners see it that way is highly
unlikely, but that is what the European Cup is all about for
Liverpool. Had the adventure ended before it had even begun
last night, where would it have left them?
Free to concentrate on the Premier League? Well, surely
professional footballers should be able to do that in the
remaining 36 games anyway. And there’s no guarantee the
extra excitement and anticipation of a Champions League run
is a massive distraction anyway. Indeed, it should add extra
fuel to the journey.
You don’t get Istanbul nights on the way to wining titles.
And no six-pointers with Chelsea could ever match the
fearsome tension of the three epic semi-finals the two clubs
have played out in the competition in the past four years.
Encounters that define eras, shape destinies. There’s no
Liverpool supporter that would happily accept waiting
another year for such moments – last night gives them the
hope more memorable nail-biters are imminent.
Especially as Liverpool aren’t looking remotely close to
cruising through any matches any time soon.
Average Liverpool sneak through
By Robin Hackett - Setanta Sports
Liverpool relied on a Dirk Kuyt goal deep
into extra time to beat Standard Liege and progress to the
Champions League group stages – but the celebrations will
not disguise the need for Rafa Benitez to bring about a
stark improvement from
The talk from the Liverpool camp before the game was of a
need to play better. The team had been in winning form in
the league but performances were not convincing and there
would be no second chances if they failed to deliver.
On the night, though, the first real chance fell to Liege –
Dieumerci Mbokani fired a swerving shot that Jose Reina did
well to tip round the post – and, while Robbie Keane had a
decent opportunity shortly afterwards, his wayward finish
did little to suggest he was finally settling in at Anfield.
As the game wore on, Liverpool had their share of the
chances, but their confidence soon wore away: Liege
continued to press and, amid missed chances, long-range
efforts just wide and agile Reina saves, Liverpool were
again riding their luck.
At times, the hosts looked like establishing some momentum,
but they so rarely breached the Liege defence that it was
difficult to see them as favourites to progress –
particularly as Wilfried Dalmat and Mbokani provided a very
real threat on the on the counter-attack.
At the start of the second half, Liege started to reassert
themselves once more and Rafa Benitez finally decided to
give his team some width an hour in as Ryan Babel was
brought on for Yossi Benayoun.
In truth, Liverpool had started to get back into it
beforehand and the Holland international’s introduction,
though timely, was perhaps not as significant as it may have
appeared, but with the ability to stretch the play came a
notable improvement in the English side’s ability to apply
That pressure rarely applied, however, to Rorys Aragon in
the Liege goal. Liverpool had possession and they had
chances, but they also struggled to produce much that
provided any genuine danger – Keane in particular failed to
inspire and it was little surprise that Benitez chose to
withdraw him in the 83rd minute for Nabil El Zhar.
In the final minutes, Liverpool continued to press; Liege
continued to counter-attack. But, in the end, neither route
proved effective and the game went to extra time.
In extra time in particular but as a general rule throughout
the evening, caution prevailed. The fans tried to lift the
team as they deflated, roaring encouragement from the
stands, but Liverpool, it seemed, felt penalties an
attractive enough option to hold back.
As before, chances came and went, but they continued to
strike from long-range or to look for the individual moment
of brilliance that had always proved elusive. Liege
continued to play on the break, but had seemingly lost all
interest in actually scoring a goal.
As the game approached penalties, the closest Liverpool had
come – fittingly enough – was a legitimate penalty shout
when El Zhar was brought down by former Newcastle defender
Oguchi Onyewu seven minutes from time, but the appeals,
surprisingly muted all things considered, were waved away.
But the introduction of Babel ultimately proved telling.
With less than three minutes to go, the Holland
international put in an inswinging cross from wide on the
left and Kuyt – disappointing on the night but so often the
hero – stretched out a leg and turned the ball home.
So, a Liverpool win and a reprieve for Benitez and his team.
How long they can continue to ride their luck in this
fashion, however, remains to be seen.