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11 Mar 2011

Undermined so deeply by their own inadequacies that even the best efforts of Andy Carroll could not effect a rescue, Liverpool suddenly find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Kenny Dalglish's hopes of marking his return to his club with silverware hang in the balance. At Anfield next week, expect a cliffhanger ending.

To manage even that, the Scot's side will have to improve considerably. Liverpool were well beaten here, in Braga's spectacular stadium, hewn into the walls of a disused granite quarry.

Dalglish will have cause to ruminate that his side are clearly not made of such stern stuff.

They remain very much alive in this competition – Arsenal, like Celtic, lost here earlier this season, but managed six at the Emirates – but the manner of this defeat, particularly before Carroll's introduction, was such that Liverpool's position among the favourites for the Europa League seems far-fetched.

Their redeeming moments were scarce. With Luis Suarez ineligible and Steven Gerrard awaiting a decision as to whether he will require surgery on the groin problem which has plagued him for the last month, they looked a pale imitation of the side which so imperiously swept past Manchester United on Sunday.

Their opponents, too, are clearly poor mimics. Braga's fans have been known as Os Arsenalistas for 90 years, after the team's decision to model their shirts on those worn by the Arsenal vintage of 1921.

From a distance, in red and white, there is a resemblance, though they lack Arsène Wenger's team's technical excellence and their delight in the aesthetic. Most importantly, most differently, Braga shoot.

And how. Had Silvio, Domingos Paciencia's team's buccaneering left-back, seen his 30-yard volley, as sweetly struck as he could have dreamed, found the net with just half an hour played, Liverpool might have been on their way out of this competition.

By that stage, they were already behind, Sotirios Kyrgiakos clumsily bundling over the live wire Brazilian Marcio Mossoro in the penalty area and another Brazilian, Alan – no, really – calmly dispatching the ball past Pepe Reina from the spot.

As Silvio's strike arrowed towards goal, Liverpool's last chance of silverware hung in the balance. Reina flew through the air, a gesture of spectacular futility.

The bar rescued him, and his side. It was not until the introduction of Carroll – wearing the number 29 shirt, rather than the nine he bears domestically, testament to Uefa finding it rather harder to come to terms with Fernando Torres's departure than most Liverpool fans – that Dalglish's team looked like taking advantage of their good fortune.

Inside 10 minutes of his first European appearance for four years, the club's record signing had created more chances, wreaked more havoc and raised more pulses than his team-mates had managed in the preceding 57.

Carroll causes problems for defenders simply by existing. His presence spreads fear, frays nerves. He created two chances for Dirk Kuyt – one smothered by Artur Moraes, a second tipped over – simply by standing, menacingly, in the penalty area.

He is dangerous with the ball, too; the £35 million man, still clearly not at the peak of fitness after two months on the sidelines, had one shot deflected over and probably should have scored with a header from the subsequent corner.

Braga introduced Paulao – literally Big Paul – to deal with Big Andy, easing the pressure somewhat, though in truth Carroll's impact was always likely to be fleeting. He is not yet fit enough to manage 30 minutes, not with such ineptitude all around him.

Kaka, the Brazilian centre back with rather less grace than his more famous namesake, did his bit to nullify his threat, too, clearly elbowing the striker as the game meandered to a close.

Carroll got up and shook off the blow, as referee Serge Gumienny failed to produce so much as a caution; both reverting to stereotype.

Liverpool must hope to do the same at Anfield in seven days.

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