Friday, 20 February 2015

Ballsy Balotelli bags winner against Besiktas

Mario Balotelli converted a late penalty in controversial circumstances to give Liverpool a vital 1-0 win against Besiktas in the first leg of their Europa League round of 32 tie.

The enigmatic Italian, who has been experiencing an encouraging upturn in form after a couple of match-changing cameo performances from the bench, produced the goods when it mattered most again, coolly striking into the bottom left corner from the spot with five minutes left after perhaps disrespectfully taking the ball out of captain for the night Jordan Henderson’s hands.

It was no more than Liverpool deserved after they dominated for most of the evening and created the best chances. However, credit must be given to the Turkish visitors as well, who, under the guidance of charismatic manager Slaven Bilic, put in a decent defensive display and more than held their own for large spells.

There was much pre-match debate about how seriously Liverpool would take the competition, but Brendan Rodgers showed how important the Europa League is to him by picking a strong starting eleven. The only change that he made to the team that beat Crystal Palace was bringing in Ibe for Markovic, who is ludicrously banned for four matches following his extremely soft red card in the Reds’ last Champions League match against Basel.

It may have been an enforced change, but it also proved an inspired one, as the young winger, who is set to sign a new five-year contract at the club, tortured Besiktas’ left back Motta with a superb man-of-the-match display. Whenever Ibe was on the ball you felt as if something was going to happen, and he invariably produced a piece of incisive attacking play. He already looks like the next Raheem Sterling, which is the biggest compliment he could be paid.

Ibe was tremendous again last night
Unfortunately, Daniel Sturridge, clearly still working his way back to full fitness, didn’t seem as dynamic as usual last night, although he did link up with Ibe to create the only goalscoring chance of note during the opening stages.

Ibe beat a man and then fed Sturridge, who seemed in a cul-de-sac near the by-line but produced a clever turn to make a yard of space for himself and then saw Gonen save his shot. The number 15 should have looked to pull it back to a teammate instead, but it was an incredible piece of skill to create the space for himself inside the box.

The rest of the first half was fairly quiet, tight and nervy, as neither side really stamped their authority on the game. It was only when Demba Ba nearly resurrected a ghost from Liverpool’s past on 36 minutes that the match sparked into life.

The formed Chelsea striker, who scored a goal that proved fatal for the Reds’ title chances last season after a slip from Steven Gerrard, played a neat one-two and was in on goal in a similar fashion once again. Thankfully this time, though, Mignolet made an excellent save low to his left to prevent Ba plaguing the Merseysiders once again.

Ba was denied by Mignolet this time around
From then on, it was end-to-end stuff before the break. Sturridge fired a free kick over from 25 yards, Moreno forced Gonen to tip over his rocket of a strike from fully 40 yards and Henderson had two good opportunities, flicking just wide from a corner kick and then sending a free kick, which looked for all the world to be heading in, agonisingly inches off target.

The second half started where the first had finished; with Liverpool creating- and wasting- chances. Ibe was also still performing superbly, producing a lovely piece of skill three minutes after the restart before passing to Henderson, who crossed to Moreno at the back post. Unfortunately, the Spaniard’s volleyed effort was poor and wayward.

Even more frustratingly, Adam Lallana missed an open goal two minutes later, blazing into the Kop following a calamitous mix up between Gonen and Franco when he really should have found the back of the net.

Lallana really should have done better from six yards out
At the other end, Ba nearly capitalised on one of a couple of sloppy passes from the under-par Can, but Skrtel bailed out his teammate with a good block, before the German international moved into midfield with 25 minutes remaining as Lovren replaced Allen.

More importantly, Balotelli was also introduced at the same time and made an immediate impact; first, he found Sturridge well with a good pass but the England striker’s first touch let him down. Then, he won a free kick out on the left, which he fired goalwards menacingly, testing Gonen in Besiktas’ goal.

With the clock ticking down and Kopites wondering whether the breakthrough was going to come, the excellent Ibe escaped the attention of Motta once again down the right and embarked on a run into the penalty area, where he was eventually abruptly upended. Referee Szymon Marciniak had no choice but to point to the penalty spot.

At that point, disharmony broke out amongst the Reds’ ranks, as Henderson, Sturridge and Balotelli all squabbled over who would take the penalty in the absence of skipper Steven Gerrard, who watched on as a pundit from the ITV studio.

It may not have been fair or in accord with Rodgers’ rules, but I’m glad Balotelli took the penalty in the end; I was more confident that he would score than Henderson or Sturridge, and he proved me right, sending the keeper the wrong way and coolly slotting home.

It was a ballsy move from Balotelli because his Liverpool career would have been all but over if he’d missed. Fair play to him for stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility; I just hope he carries on scoring and creating goals and making an impact from the bench. I'm happy to eat as much humble pie as he serves up.

"Why always me?"
At the end of the day, it may not have been as exciting or entertaining as Liverpool’s 8-0 win the last time they faced Besiktas, but it was an important and positive result nonetheless. Travelling to Turkey with a clean sheet and a one-goal lead means that basically all the Reds need to do next week is score an away goal and the tie will be pretty much over.

That hopefully won’t prove too difficult in the Ataturk Stadium, a place that holds many special memories for Kopites after all.


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