Liverpool's Europa League challenge experienced a setback yesterday as a poor performance in Portugal handed Braga a 1-0 lead ahead of the decisive second leg at Anfield in seven days time. An abysmal first half was followed by only a slightly improved second half display as the Reds failed to pose any sort of potent attacking threat and couldn't manage to grab a frankly undeserved equaliser after an early penalty had given the hosts a crucial lead.
With Steven Gerrard out due to a niggling groin injury and Luis Suarez suspended, Dirk Kuyt ploughed a lonely and fruitless furrow up front and our fatal lack of width was exposed once again as inexperienced central midfielder Jay Spearing played on the right wing while Joe Cole was shunted over to the left, where, predictably, he made little impact on the match.
The opening exchanges were dull and felt distinctively and surprisingly like a pre-season match as neither side really imposed themselves on the game. Although not preferable to the spectator, the low tempo that characterised the first 15 minutes suited the visitors perfectly, as Dalglish's men looked to subdue their dangerous opponents and hopefully grab an away goal on the break.
Unfortunately a reckless and ridiculous tackle from Kyrgiakos ruined this plan and gave the hosts the perfect opportunity to claim the lead on 17 minutes. The big Greek simply had to shepherd Mossoro into the corner as Braga's number eight was heading away from goal, however Kyrgiakos inexplicably and unnecessarily challenged for the ball and committed a foul in the process, allowing Alan to step up and tuck the ball into the corner of the net from 12 yards.
With an away goal now of paramount importance Liverpool were expected to respond positively, however the Reds found this difficult as they lacked a physical presence up front to hold the ball up so the midfield could join the attack. As usual Dirk Kuyt was conscientious, but he, like most of the midfield, was anonymous until the introduction of Andy Carroll in the second half.
After 26 minutes Raul Meireles blasted a free kick disappointingly into the wall after Kaka had felled Cole to give us a set piece in a promising position, before Spearing's brave block prevented Hugo Viana's effort testing Reina ten minutes later. A clever free kick routine was then cleared by the Reds, however it fell invitingly for Silvio, who displayed brilliant technique to smash a fantastic volley against the cross bar from distance.
At the interval the Reds' were relieved to have only a one-goal deficit, as Braga had threatened to double their advantage in the closing stages of the first period, whilst Liverpool never looked like even creating a chance, let alone scoring a goal. That simply had to change and thankfully finally did when Andy Carroll added some much needed impetus to our play after replacing the lethargic Christian Poulsen just before the hour mark.
The Geordie made an immediate impact as his sheer physical presence terrified Braga's back line and allowed the Reds to retain possession in the opposition's half and develop attacks with greater ease. This was demonstrated when Carroll's left footed shot from the corner of the box took a deflection and looped inches wide, only a minute after Cole's penalty claim had been ignored by referee Serge Gumienny.
After that Kuyt chested down Meireles' pass before turning and sending a good half volley goalwards, which was well tipped over by Artur in the Braga goal. Unfortunately that was the final noteworthy opportunity as the game petered out to a disappointing conclusion. In fact, the only notable event throughout the remainder of the match arrived in the final minute when Kaka's despicable elbow on Carroll, which warranted a red card, went unnoticed by the officials.
Although eye-wateringly dull, a 1-0 defeat leaves the tie perfectly poised ahead of the return match at Anfield next Thursday. With the Europa League representing our only chance of success this season, a much improved performance is a must if we are to progress to the quarterfinals. The creativity and threat up front must return and silly errors such as Kyrgiakos' cannot be repeated, although Braga's failure to create many clear-cut chances in front of their own supporters should indicate that a clean sheet is eminently possible at Anfield.
Significantly, the Reds haven't been defeated at home in European competition this season and that fact, combined with Braga's atrocious record in England, leaves the Merseysiders as slight favourites, although another anxious European night is expected as Dalglish's men strive to secure silverware that will efficiently and effectively gloss over a below par season.