Rafa Benitez is forever extolling the virtues of honest endeavour, but he will not have enjoyed watching Liverpool making such hard work of seeing off the modest challenge of Hungarian outsiders Debrecen at Anfield on Wednesday night.
The Champions League is renowned for glamour occasions involving Europe’s finest and seldom throws up a mismatch once the group stages are under way. It comes close every now and then, though, and this was meant to be just such an occasion.
Down among the minnows in pot four, Debrecen were supposed to give Liverpool the easiest of starts, a gentle introduction to Group E that would surely stand the five-times champions in good stead for another assured march towards the knockout stages.
That was the expectation, anyway. But not for the first time, Liverpool veered from the script and went perilously close to surrendering points to a side whose qualifying campaign started back in July.
Dirk Kuyt at least emerged with his reputation intact, if not exactly enhanced, by making the most of a rare outing up front and claiming the first-half injury-time goal that
ultimately settled the outcome.
Few others followed suit as Liverpool laboured to turn their possession into anything tangible and even had to survive a couple of late scares as striker Adamo Coulibaly twice threatened to ruin Benitez’s 300th match in charge.
The burly front-runner nicked the ball over a startled Pepe Reina in the 78th minute, forcing Jamie Carragher into a hurried headed clearance. Then, four minutes later, he drove narrowly wide under pressure from Martin Skrtel.
Little wonder a pocket of around 2,000 travelling fans drowned out the Kop with a noisy acclaim of their side’s heroics at the end, as the Debrecen players took a richly-deserved bow.
Little wonder, either, that visiting coach Andras Herczeg picked up on Benitez’s apparent discomfort near the end, saying: ‘It was noticeable from Liverpool’s use of substitutes that they were trying to close the game out while we were the ones trying to score.’
Herczeg could be forgiven his glow of satisfaction at keeping the game in the balance right to the final whistle after putting Liverpool to the test with distinctly modest resources.
Perhaps it was not that much of a surprise, given Debrecen had beaten a Levski Sofia side ranked 100 places above them in the UEFA order of merit to reach the group stages. But surely no one could deny that Liverpool’s 100th victory in the European Cup should have been a lot more routine.
It looked like it would be when Albert Riera began to find his range midway through the first half and tested keeper Vukasin Poleksic with two left-foot drives. Kuyt was thwarted by a goalline clearance by Nobert Meszaros, as he followed up the first, but there was no keeping him out in first-half added time.
Yossi Benayoun reverted to his more familiar role of creator, after his hat-trick heroics against Burnley last Saturday, with a sliderule pass that gave Fernando Torres the chance to turn on the edge of the area and force another diving save from Poleksic.
This time luck deserted the Debrecen keeper as the rebound fell obligingly for Kuyt to force home, his second goal in as many games in his preferred role up front.
If an expectant home crowd saw that as he signal for a second-half onslaught, their renowned powers of insight for once let them down.
Steven Gerrard left referee Pedro Proenca unconvinced with two penalty appeals but went close to a sensational goal in he 55th minute. Glen Johnson was guilty of over-elaborating in the area, but no such accusation could be levelled at Gerrard as the visiting defence tried to clear their lines.
The Liverpool skipper watched the ball all the way on to his right boot and he unleashed a first-time volley of such ferocity, it drew gasps from the Kop as it powered beyond Poleksic and skimmed he bar.
It was an isolated glimpse of Liverpool a their best on a night when all the doubts and frustrations that surfaced against Tottenham and Aston Villa once more hung heavily in the air.
Benayoun wriggled past challenges and opened up space in his inimitable style, one mazy run ending with a shot that almost found a way past Poleksic at his near post
10 minutes from time.
Far more conspicuous, though, was the sight of Javier Mascherano, belatedly back from international duty, being thrown into the fray for the last few minutes, at the expense of Benayoun, to try to stem an increasingly urgent Debrecen quest for an equaliser.
Nerves were that frayed, for all Benitez’s claims to the contrary afterwards, on a night that was supposed to be trouble-free.