Brendan Rodgers’ determined Liverpool side won the battle but lost the war as the courageous Reds were knocked out of the Europa League by Zenit St Petersburg on the away goals rule, despite claiming a deserved 3-1 victory at Anfield on Thursday.
The brave hosts, who were attempting to overturn a two-goal deficit from the first-leg of the last 32 clash, huffed, puffed and almost blew the house down on a remarkable night on Merseyside, but it was simply not to be as the crucial and much-needed fourth goal eluded the five-time Champions League winners.
Brazilian forward Hulk made a difficult task almost impossible for Liverpool, as he capitalised on Jamie Carragher’s under-hit back-pass to open the scoring for the Russian side. That vital away goal meant that the home side would have to score four goals in order to progress and face Swiss team FC Basel in the next round.
Fortunately, Rodgers had his own superhero in the form of Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez, who scored two stunning free-kicks, which, coupled with Joe Allen’s goal, gave Liverpool hope. Unfortunately for the passionate Anfield crowd – which came alive, as it so usually does on famous European nights – hope was all they could hang on to for the final half hour of the game, during which they were unable to break down an increasingly anxious Zenit team.
Despite their valiant effort, the grim reality is that Liverpool are out of the Europa League and Rodgers’ chances of winning some silverware in his first season as the Reds’ manager are now dead. But this disappointing European campaign cannot simply be classed as a mistake and forgotten. Instead, the former Swansea manager will be expected to thoroughly analyse the Merseysiders’ overall performance in the competition, with the view to showing significant improvement next term, should Liverpool qualify for a European competition come the end of the current campaign.
The Reds have been inconsistent in the Premier League this season and their results on the continent have been equally unpredictable. Despite cruising through the third round qualifier against FC Gomel, Liverpool only edged past Scottish side Hearts in the qualifying play-off round. The 5-3 away win over Young Boys in the group stage was entertaining but hardly encouraging, while the 3-2 home defeat to Udinese was purely frustrating. Rodgers’ men even failed to beat Young Boys at Anfield. That Liverpool topped Group A somewhat flattered them – they could quite easily have failed to progress to the knockout stage.
When asked by this writer at Wednesday’s pre-match press conference what he had learned from his first season participating in a European competition as a manager, Rodgers spoke about how it had been ‘brilliant pitting your wits as a coach and a manager against opposition that you don’t play regularly’, why ‘your concentration level has to be really high’ and how ‘you have to make sure that your team is balanced behind the ball’ in transitional moments. However, he also claimed that there are ‘not many changes’ compared to domestic football.
Some of Europe’s most tactically astute managers may disagree. Only time will tell how much knowledge Rodgers has gained from his fascinating Europa League experience.
See what the expert tipsters are tipping on OLBG