LIVERPOOL // Alberto Gilardino scored a late winner for Fiorentina to secure a 2-1 win over Liverpool in the Champions League yesterday. Yossi Benayoun gave the Premier League side the lead with a 43rd minute header at Anfield before Martin Jorgensen scored a 63rd minute equaliser for the Italians. Gilardino won it with seconds remaining after converting a Juan Vargas cross. With Fiorentina safely through to the last 16 and the five-times European champions Liverpool resigned to playing in the Europa League next year, this was a dead rubber in terms of placings in Group E.
The Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard said his side were not good enough to progress to knockout phase after they secured just seven points from their six group games. "I think we've been unlucky tonight but we've not been good enough," he said . There was some encouragement for Liverpool fans in the shape of midfielder Alberto Aquilani. The £20 million player from Roma in August had made just three substitute appearances since his move but showed some decent touches on his first start before being substituted after 75 minutes.
This was not the way Liverpool had intended to say farewell to the competition after a disappointing group stage campaign. With nothing to play for but pride and with a titanic Premier League game against Arsenal on Sunday, Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez used the game to give some of his fringe players a chance to shine in the Champions League spotlight. Liverpool-born defender Stephen Darby was handed his first senior start at right-back and he was kept busy along with Diego Cavalieri, the second-choice keeper.
The hosts would have been behind at half-time if Cavalieri had not produced a superb reflex save to keep out Lorenzo De Silvestri's 33rd minute header while the Brazilian also saved Daniel Agger from embarrassment after the Danish defender's weak backpass threatened to let in Mario Santana. Cavalieri was also forced to beat away an awkward long-range effort from Riccardo Montolivo before Benayoun broke the deadlock against the run of play.
It was made by Steven Gerrard, the captain making his 501st appearance for the club. After winning a free-kick just outside the penalty area on the right, Gerrard delivered a fine cross for Benayoun to head home. Almost 20 minutes after the break Jorgensen, who had earlier blazed over the bar, kept his composure to equalise with a low finish after slack marking in by the hosts. The game appeared to be drifting towards a draw when Gilardino hit the winner in front of his side's delirious supporters.
Benitez denied that his side lacked concentration after conceding another late goal - something they did in the two games with Lyon. "No, not really," said Benitez, when asked about whether he was worried by his team's lack of concentration. "Tonight was just a mistake and something that can happen." Meanwhile Barcelona, Inter Milan, Stuttgart and Olympiakos advanced to complete the lineup for the next round. The defending champions Barcelona needed an 86th-minute free kick by Lionel Messi to win 2-1 at Dynamo Kiev. Inter beat Russia's Rubin Kazan 2-0 to advance, while Stuttgart took second place in Group G with a 3-1 win over Unirea Urziceni. Olympiakos beat already qualified Arsenal 1-0 to finish second to the Gunners in Group H.
Barcelona needed only to avoid a large defeat to advance and that looked possible when Artem Milevskiy hit an early goal for Dynamo, but Xavi Hernandez equalised in the 33rd after sustained pressure and Messi made sure Barcelona qualified in first place. Samuel Eto'o and Mario Balotelli scored either side of half-time to give Inter Milan a 2-0 win over Rubin Kazan. Eto'o opened the scoring in the 30th after being set up by an exchange between Javier Zanetti and Balotelli, before the latter scored a long-range free kick in the 63rd.
Stuttgart secured second place to Sevilla in Group G with victory in their first game under new coach Christian Gross. Ciprian Marica, Christian Traesch and Pavel Pogrebnyak scored inside the first 11 minutes to stun the Romanian team, who went into the match with a two-point lead over Stuttgart in Group G. Antonio Semedo pulled one back for Unirea in the 46th minute. Sevilla had already qualified before beating Rangers 1-0.
Olympiakos advanced to the knockout stage through Leonardo's second-half goal against Arsenal, which lost its unbeaten record but still topped Group H. Standard Liege qualified for the Europa League in dramatic circumstances when goalkeeper Sinan Bolat scored an injury-time header to earn a 1-1 draw with AZ Alkmaar. Real Madrid, AC Milan and Bayern Munich, European champions a total 20 times between them, advanced alongside CSKA Moscow after their final group matches on Tuesday. Manchester United, Bordeaux, Chelsea and FC Porto are the other teams in the draw for the next round, which will take place in Nyon, Switzerland, on December 18. The draw for the round of 32 in the Europa League will take place the same day.
* With agencies