Liverpool's European campaign ended with a whimper last night as we were held to an embarrassing goalless draw at home to SC Braga, meaning that the Portugese outfit progressed by a single goal on aggregate. An uninspiring performance from the Reds fatally lacked a cutting edge and the visitors took full advantage, happily 'parking the bus' while caring little about testing Pepe Reina, who was making his 300th appearance for the Merseysiders.
With Steven Gerrard injured and Luis Suarez suspended, Andy Carroll made his first start up front to provide what many predicted to be a potent attacking force. However, unfortunately having a physically imposing target man led to far too many aimless long balls as the Reds unwisely resorted to route one football due to the frustrating and anxious nature of the evening and Braga's resolute defence.
Prior to kick off Anfield impeccably observed a minute’s silence as a mark of solidarity with the Japanese people who have suffered so dramatically after the tragic recent events. With the match now firmly put into perspective, an inevitably edgy opening ensued, as both sides knew that conceding an early goal would greatly lessen their chances of reaching the quarterfinals of UEFA's secondary competition.
An away goal from Braga and Liverpool would've needed three in response to progress, whilst an early goal from the hosts could've opened the floodgates and led to Braga suffering a similar battering to the six-goal drubbing they experienced at the Emirates stadium earlier in the campaign.
Nine minutes in Cole went close as good play from Carroll set up the diminutive midfielder, only for his effort to be well stopped by the keeper. Carroll's follow up attempt was then deflected wide before the tall number 29 headed the resultant corner off target, as the Reds began to threaten the visitors' goal. Moments later Glen Johnson connected with a corner and headed wide when the ball appeared to be set perfectly for Carroll, who was just behind the England right back.
Carroll was flagged offside after a sublime flick from Maxi had set him through, before the away side responded and enjoyed a period of possession, while ultimately failing to seriously test Reina. Midway through the first 45 Alan, who had converted the decisive spot kick in the first leg, curled a shot wide after cutting inside and Lima saw his effort blocked as Braga tentatively searched for a game-changing away goal.
On the half hour mark Carroll was inches away from nodding Kuyt's cross home after the Dutchman had cleverly sprung the offside trap. Lucas then surged into the box and was unfairly barged off the ball, however unfortunately referee Domingos Paciencia ignored his legitimate penalty claims.
With half time rapidly approaching Andy Carroll guided Maxi's clipped cross wide of goal, as the match entered the interval at a frustrating stalemate. Yet again Liverpool had failed to display the creativity, invention and guile required to open up Braga's stubborn backline and, lamentably, the second half was even more disappointing.
Maxi crashed a strike over the bar from 20 yards out after 54 minutes, but apart from that Liverpool struggled to create any clear cut chances and the away side grew in confidence, posing a counter attacking threat particularly during the opening stages, when Lima smashed a free kick straight at Meireles before Alan stabbed wide from six-yards out after a corner had fell invitingly for Braga's number 30. After that former Newcastle United midfielder Hugo Viana thundered in a 35-yard free kick that Reina did well to hold under pressure from the lurking Braga frontline.
As the Reds' frustration grew and the crowd's anxiety became increasingly tangible, temporary manager Kenny Dalglish threw on Jay Spearing and David Ngog in a desperate attempt to inject life and attacking vibrancy into our play. The two youngsters were immediately involved in the action, Spearing firing harmlessly high and wide after Ngog's shot had been comfortably saved by Artur following a quick throw in. However, although it was encouraging to see two youngsters being trusted to perform in such a high profile match, these substitutions betrayed our obvious lack of squad depth that let us down for the umpteenth time last night.
With only a single goal needed to take the match into extra time Liverpool threw the kitchen sink at the vistors during the closing stages. Kuyt inadvertently blocked Carroll’s goalbound header five minutes before the end and Artur denied Skrtel in a one-on-one situation as our desperation reached a new, depressing peak.
In injury time there was still time for one last opportunity, as Meireles lifted an inviting ball into the box from 40 yards, however inexplicably Ngog failed to convert when a mere touch would have diverted the ball into the net and taken the game into extra time.
It was no more then we deserved though as our Europa League campaign came to a dismal and humiliating end in front of a subdued Anfield, on an evening that was characterised by far too many pointless long balls. As Andy Carroll was our only real threat the tendency to punt the ball long was annoying but inevitable. Disappointingly this stifled our usual build up play and left us lacking attacking potency.
Liverpool must find the right mix between utilising Carroll's talents with direct football and honouring the traditional pass and move style cherished for decades at Anfield. Considering he cost £35 million it is highly likely that Carroll will start the majority of matches, however this must not lead to excessive long ball football, otherwise the very fabric of our footballing identity will be radically changed.
This defeat, coupled with an unfavourable FA Cup draw, means that Liverpool must finish fifth if they are to secure European football next season, an extremely unlikely feat considering the Reds are six points behind fifth placed Tottenham Hotspur, who have played a game less than Dalglish's troops.
A European exile awaits us, and the long building process required seems more daunting then ever.