Friday, 27 February 2015

Reds crash out of Europe on unhappy return to Istanbul

Liverpool lost 5-4 on penalties against Besiktas to crash out of the Europa League in Istanbul last night. Despite playing in the Ataturk Stadium, the venue where the Reds miraculously recovered from a three-goal deficit to beat AC Milan and win the Champions League in 2005, Liverpool couldn’t reproduce any of that magic and deserved to exit the competition at the hands of Slaven Bilic’s sde, who edged the contest over the two legs.

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
During the opening stages Liverpool did their best to quieten the unbelievably loud home supporters. The Besiktas fans still didn’t shut up, but the Reds were the better of two poor teams, keeping possession quite well and produced the first meaningful goalmouth action on 20 minutes. Moreno got down the left wing, dodging Opare’s challenge, and then pulled the ball back for Sterling, whose decent effort from the edge of the box was pushed away by Gonen.

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
Moreno’s low effort was also saved and Balotelli blazed over, while Sosa stung Mignolet’s hands for the home side, but nobody was disappointed to see a dire first half come to a close. Unfortunately, though, Besiktas came out for the second half a different team, while Liverpool’s performance only went downhill.

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 response, Rodgers introduced Manquillo for Ibe and Lallana for Balotelli, but they were brought on 10 minutes too late. As a result, although the ship was steadied a little, there was no danger of Liverpool usurping Besiktas’ position of authority in the tie.

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
Why Mario Balotelli wasn’t left on when penalties were clearly a possibility late on and Sturridge was struggling to make an impact is beyond me. He’s one of the best penalty takers in the world and yet he’s sat watching on as Dejan Lovren, of all people, walks up to take the decisive spot kick! Brendan Rodgers clearly has some questions to answer.

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.


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