The hope of another memorable European night at Anfield was in the hearts of every Liverpool supporter on Merseyside.
It wasn’t to be, though, as Liverpool crashed out of the Europa League on the away goals rule to Zenit St. Petersburg (3-3 on aggregate) despite winning 3-1 on Thursday.
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The history books are littered with casualties and examples of why you should never count the Reds out on their home turf, especially in Europe. Brendan Rodgers conjured up a rallying call to the home fans, but it was up to the players to respond and produce the quality on the field to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg.
Kop legend Jamie Carragher announced his plans to retire at season’s end last week, despite recently playing himself back into first team contention. Carragher has been a familiar face on the team sheet for 15 years, and although his performances have dipped in recent years, the club and its supporters were devastated by the news.
Unfortunately, a critical mistake by Carragher in the first half proved to be Liverpool’s undoing on Thursday. Hulk capitalized on a poor back-pass by the veteran defender, walking in untouched and calmly beating a helpless Pepe Reina to give Zenit the 1-0 lead and a commanding 3-0 aggregate cushion.
Defensive errors have been the defining theme this season for the Reds. No matter how good they play in attack, schoolboy mistakes on the other end of the field have been extremely costly.
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Inconsistent performances to date led many to believe that a miraculous comeback was virtually impossible for this group. Put it simply, the Reds have been their own worst enemy, and the trend continued on Thursday night.
To compensate for the lack of strikers, as Daniel Sturridge was cup-tied and ineligible to compete in the competition for Liverpool, plus the recent long-term injury to Fabio Borini, Rodgers decided to flood the middle of the field with Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing flanking Luis Suarez up top, and the trio of Steven Gerrard, Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva in the heart of midfield.
The plethora of creativity was abundantly clear, and as expected, dictated proceedings from the kick-off.
Zenit never once maintained possession for a significant amount of time, but were a goal up. The booming atmosphere inside Anfield was hushed for about nine minutes following Carragher’s gaffe, until Suarez slotted his first goal of the game through an intelligent free kick that went under the wall and past Zenit keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev. Suddenly, belief was restored among the home crowd, and when Allen made it 2-1 just 15 minutes later, it was difficult not to reserve some faith that Liverpool could produce another magical comeback.
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The thought must have crept into the mind of Zenit manager Luciano Spaletti when Suarez scored his second goal of the night just under the hour mark. The Uruguayan produced an exquisite long-range curler that bent around the wall and neatly tucked inside the near post. Malafeev was completely horizontal in his vain attempt to save the shot, but the strike was absolutely unstoppable and world class.
With 30 minutes to play, it was game on for Liverpool.
Gerrard was a beast for 90 minutes, galloping up and down the field, diving into 50/50 balls and providing splendid service. The captain’s performance was admirable on this night, and you almost expected him to grab the late winner and pull the Reds out of the fire, a defining trait that has become his identity for Liverpool.
But, it was never to be.
Like the majority of their performances this season, Liverpool were top-notch but were made to suffer by a lapse in focus and failure to put away their chances in front of goal when presented. Over two-legs, the Reds were by-far the better team, but will be forced to swallow the agony of defeat and exit the competition.
Without silverware to play for, Rodgers will now have the tough job of rallying his players to respond on the domestic front. Liverpool sits nine points behind fourth-place Tottenham and five points back of Arsenal for the final European spot, having played one more match than both London-based clubs.
The club’s character will be put to the test.
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