Huddled around a television in the Ferenc Puskas Stadium, Liverpool's players looked numb as they witnessed their Champions League exit. Fiorentina's 1-0 win against Lyon made their own victory, by the same scoreline, against Debrecen irrelevant. Just pride before their fall. There will be debates about where it all went wrong, arguments about whether Rafa Benitez should remain in charge and whether the club can keep hold of their icons like Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres over financial worries.
But amid the depression, there is defiance. None more so than from Benitez, who is hoping their first-stage failure will galvanise his team. Crucially, he retains the support of the board with his position "under no threat". The Spaniard is also "100 per cent sure" his side will finish in the top four and return for the Champions League next season. A derby win at Everton on Sunday will go a long way to showing his words are not hollow.
"I like to win every game and be as high as possible in all the competitions, but I think more about the players, the staff and the fans and I'm disappointed for everyone," he said. "We must remain positive, and think about the next competition and the next game. We have to win against Everton; that is our priority now." Benitez reflected on the late goals against Lyon as the reason for their Champions League downfall. Four priceless points went amiss with a defeat and a draw. Liverpool were hoping the French side would save them, but in the end, it was Fiorentina who had the Gallic hero.
Juan Vargas may have confide-ntly dispatched the penalty winner, but the French keeper Sebastien Frey's superb late stops from Jean Makoun and then Lisandro Lopez ensured the Italians were in the last 16. Liverpool's own fourth-minute winner from David Ngog became merely a statistic, although welcomed to end a run of five games without victory. Fabio Aurelio swung in a cross from the right, Jamie Carragher headed into the box and Ngog flicked the ball into the net with an outstretched boot.
It was not pretty, but neither was his side's performance against a defensive Debrecen side. When the hosts came out of their shell towards the end, they highlighted Liverpool's continued indecisiveness at the back. Pepe Reina did well to block a close-range effort from the substitute Amado Coulibaly. Aurelio agrees there is room for improvement and the Europa League will offer a consolation prize. "There's frustration," he said. "We know we're out of the Champions League for this season, but we have an opportunity in a competition that is new for us. Now we have to concentrate on that. It is an opportunity to win a trophy and that's how we'll go into this competition thinking. At Liverpool, every competition is important. We want to win trophies. There is still a long way go until May, but we have to improve."
That is obvious. The Premier League has to be their focus though, and a derby win to start their rise back among the leaders. But Benitez has to be bold too. Goodison Park might not seem the right time to risk Alberto Aquilani, but he risks comparisons with his handling of Robbie Keane at Anfield if Aquilani remains a peripheral figure. The Italian midfielder was given just a minute on Tuesday in his third substitute appearance since his £20million (Dh120m) arrival from Fiorentina.
He is fit after an ankle injury and Liverpool still desperately need some creativity, confidence and conviction in their play. Aquilani could be the missing link, but the players can no longer hide as Javier Mascherano admitted: "Liverpool deserve more from us." They certainly do. @Email:email@example.com