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18 Mar 2011

Liverpool were dumped out of the Europa League as they failed to overturn a 1-0 first leg deficit as Braga held them to a goalless draw at Anfield.

Striker Andy Carroll made his first start for the club since signing from Newcastle and carried his side's greatest threat - twice heading wide.

But the Reds lacked creativity and struggled for a breakthrough.

Raul Meireles headed horribly high and Martin Skrtel had a late chance saved as the Reds tamely bowed out.

It was an inauspicious full debut for Carroll as he progressed from two substitute appearances to start his first game for Liverpool since his £35m January move.

He had last started a match on 28 December for Newcastle and, although he was not lacking in effort or commitment, he and the Liverpool team could not find a way through the resilient rearguard of Braga.

Invention and inspiration were missing for the Merseysiders and the man who usually provides it, captain Steven Gerrard, had to watch agonisingly from the stands as he recovers from a groin injury.

The prospect of failing to qualify for European competition next season is now also a stark reality for Liverpool.

Winning the Europa League represented the club's best chance of qualifying for a 12th successive campaign of continental competition next term.

Only fifth place in the Premier League will now be good enough to book a Europa League spot and, with the Reds in sixth and six points behind Tottenham - who have a game in hand - that now seems unlikely.

The disappointment of limping out against Braga will be exacerbated as Liverpool made a promising opening.

Liverpool have been waiting for Joe Cole to come to the fore and he looked in the mood to banish a troublesome time at the club since his move to Anfield from Chelsea last summer, although it ultimately proved a false dawn.

The playmaker was showing an increased energy and industry and linked with Carroll as both players almost hauled the Reds level on aggregate early on.

Cole ran on to a knock-down from the towering striker and had an angled shot saved, with Carroll seizing on the loose ball to send a deflected shot wide.

From the resulting corner, Carroll headed just wide at the far post before Braga settled and subdued a Liverpool side who quickly ran out of ideas.

Braga midfielder Alan caused young Reds left-back Danny Wilson all sorts of problems.

And, when the Brazilian's shot struck Skrtel's arm, the Liverpool centre-back was given the benefit of the doubt that it was ball to hand rather than the other way around.

Braga lost 6-0 at Arsenal earlier this season in the Champions League group stages and had not beaten an English side away in Europe in four attempts.

They did not have to win at Anfield but, after Meireles headed frustratingly over from a Dirk Kuyt cross, the visitors almost took the lead in fortuitous circumstances.

A deflected shot fell to Alan in front of goal and, even though he appeared offside, the midfielder poked a shot wide.

A goal would have been a bonus for a Braga side more intent keeping a clean sheet, which the Reds tried to threaten with a late rally only to fall short.

A goalbound Carroll header was blocked by team-mate Cole and, when Skrtel broke through on goal, Braga keeper Artur came out and blocked the ball away as Liverpool went out forlornly.


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