Liverpool's Champions League dreams were shattered long before Fiorentina's winner
If there was any doubt in Liverpool's collective consciousness as to what removal from the Champions League limelight into the shadows of its little sister signified, Debrecen, their hosts for a game by turns meaningful and meaningless, were only too willing to remind them, players and fans alike. As Rafael Benítez's players were put through their paces under the watchful eye of Sammy Lee, the Spaniard's trusted assistant, and their support slowly packed out their two heavily-policed pens, images flashed up on the big screen in the corner of the Ferenc Puskas Stadium. Related ArticlesRyan Babel's to blame for his lot at LiverpoolCarragher: Liverpool must focus on job in handThe Daily Bung: There's no Ryan teamRyan Babel questions future at LiverpoolLiverpool walk alone in early departure loungeSport on televisionCristiano Ronaldo, AC Milan, Nou Camp and the rest. The strobe and the spotlight. There is only one place to be this, or any, season, and no matter what Liverpool did here, they may not have been invited. The Champions League is box office, and, whatever their flaws, so are Liverpool. They drew 42,000 to this vast relic of Janos Kadar's Communism, contradictorily named in honour of a man who galloped away from his regime. Debrecen's ground 120 miles away and too small for all those bright lights and superstars holds 10,200. The vast, silent majority came only for the spectacle. They came to the wrong place. Liverpool, safely ahead after four minutes and threatening from every corner a novelty as their hosts extricated themselves from the debate over zonal and man marking by doing away with it entirely, turned the engine to idle and waited for news from Florence. Their bodies may have been here, but their hearts were by the Arno. In the stands, it was much the same. Texts were checked, web browsers opened, supporters thirsty for an update, any update. They need not have bothered. Juan Manuel Vargas's goal from the penalty spot, just what they did not want to hear, was announced over the Tannoy, the hosts only too happy to oblige their illustrious guests, stumbling on the precipice of humiliation, ignoring Liverpool's pleas not to be told of the score. Yet, as tempting a denouement as it is to suggest that Liverpool's chances evaporated on Tuesday night in one dubious, at best, spot kick, such a conclusion would be misleading. Liverpool's hopes went in two minutes, one at Anfield, one at the Stade Gerland, some weeks ago. They went when Daniel Agger turned to talk to Martin Skrtel to allow Sidney Govou to run free on Merseyside, and when Sotirios Kyrgiakos forgot to mark Lisandro Lopez. True, they have had their share of bad luck that heartbreaking Lopez goal should have been ruled out for an offside against Michel Bastos in the build-up, and Lyon could, and should, have been beaten long before the dying seconds three weeks earlier, but Benítez has spent five years making his own luck. He, and his team, cannot cede responsibility now. For next year, if there is a next year, lessons must be learnt. There must be none of the presumption that Carragher also spoke of, the idea that Liverpool will qualify for the group stages because they always do. There can be none of the slips of concentration which have brought Liverpool to this point for the first time in Benítez's tenure. The Champions League, by and large, is for the elite. Also-rans tend to get what they deserve. No matter who they are.
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