The visitors had the better of the first half, but the hosts dominated after the break and levelled on aggregate thanks to substitute Tolgay Arslan’s strike. Only one team was going to win it during normal and extra time, and it wasn’t Liverpool, who did well to hold on for a penalty shootout. However, their fate was ultimately sealed when Dejan Lovren, with a depressing sense of inevitability, skied their fifth penalty way over the bar.
Admittedly, Liverpool entered the tricky test in Turkey with depleted resources. Sakho and Henderson were added to an injury list that already included Gerrard and Lucas, while Markovic was suspended and Coutinho rightly rested. As a result, Can and Allen started together in midfield, Toure and Lovren came in at the back and Balotelli partnered Sturridge up front as Rodgers went for two up top.
In hindsight, that wasn’t a wise move by the Northern Irish manager. Liverpool clearly lost the midfield battle, particularly in the second half, while Sturridge, who should have started on the bench with Lallana coming in to shore up the midfield, was ineffectual.
Balotelli may not have been much better, but he put in the best performance of Liverpool’s attackers, holding up the ball well, producing good link up work on occasion and, perhaps most importantly, keeping his cool amidst extreme provocation from Besiktas’ defence, who kicked him all evening.
|Balotelli was one of Liverpool's best performers against Besiktas|
15 minutes later, Sturridge squandered what turned out to be Liverpool’s best chance to score throughout the entire 120 minutes. Balotelli capitalised on a slip from a Besiktas defender and found his strike partner in a good position in the box. Decisively, however, Sturridge failed to shoot first time, instead turning back on himself and allowing defenders to get back. His eventual effort was disappointingly weak and comfortably dealt with.
|Sturridge should have done better with this shot|
Hutchinson, Kurtulus and Tore all saw shots from range either fly just over the bar or be collected by Mignolet, as the Turkish outfit saw plenty of the ball but lacked a cutting edge during the first 20 minutes after the restart. Liverpool, meanwhile, barely saw the ball at all and struggled to get out of their own half as they were overpowered and overwhelmed in midfield.
Substitute Arslan supplied the cutting edge that his side had been lacking on 72 minutes, only three minutes after firing a warning shot inches wide of Mignolet’s left hand post from 35 yards out. Demba Ba flicked the ball to the 24-year old with a name suspiciously similar to the lion in C.S Lewis’ ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ series, and he let rip with a curling left footed drive that roared into the top corner and left Mignolet with no chance.
|Arslan- or Aslan!- levels the tie on aggregate|
In the dying stages of normal time, the Reds’ nemesis Demba Ba should have won it for the hosts, but somehow he contrived to strike against the bar when he simply had to score after the ball fell favourably for him yards out from a late corner.
Ba also had a few opportunities to score during extra time, but apart from that the dreaded additional half hour passed without much to write home about and Liverpool entered only their fourth penalty shootout in European competition aiming to maintain their 100% winning record.
Unfortunately, Besiktas were flawless from the spot and, although Lambert, Lallana, Can and Allen all found the net from 12 yards, Lovren was ludicrously chosen to take the all-important fifth spot kick. Unsurprisingly, the unconfident summer signing, who has endured a torrid time on Merseyside since arriving from Southampton, blazed over.
|You've got to feel sorry for Lovren. He shouldn't have been taking the penalty|
Yes, exiting the Europa League frees up Liverpool’s fixture schedule and allows them to concentrate on the League and FA Cup, but it also frustratingly cuts off another route to both silverware and Champions League qualification.
Rodgers now has to try and rally his tired and dejected troops to prepare them for a big match against Man City at midday on Sunday. I don’t envy him.