By Arun Nair – (@Nair_39)
Liverpool are out of the Europa League after a rousing comeback in the second leg of their last 32 tie against Zenit St. Petersberg fell just short.
A 3-1 win at Anfield on the night courtesy of two Luis Suarez free kicks and Joe Allen’s strike put the teams level on aggregate but the Russian side advanced by virtue of Hulk’s away goal.
The result ended the Reds’ hopes of a trophy in 2012-13, but manager Brendan Rodgers will be proud after his side, roared on by the Anfield faithful, produced a stirring revival to come agonisingly close to securing progress against all-odds.
Liverpool came into the game requiring to bridge a two goal deficit after sucumbing to defeat in Russia, with profligacy from Suarez and defensive mistakes allowing Zenit to triumph 2-0 through Hulk and Sergei Semak. The absence of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, both ineligible for the competition, did not help the Reds’ chances.
Despite the size of the task at hands, the hosts began the game at a high tempo, gaining strength from the atmosphere created by thousands of passionnate Reds fans.
However, their bright start was tempered when Jamie Carragher’s mistake led to the concession an away goal, which ultimately decided the tie. The veteran defender miss-hit his attempted backpass, allowing Hulk to race clear before slotting past Pepe Reina, leaving the home side requiring four goals without further reply to secure a place in the last 16.
The Reds’ response was swift. Daniel Agger burst forward only to be sent tumbling under the challenge of Nicolas Lombaerts just outside the area. After a lengthly delay, Suarez stepped up to crash his free kick through a brittle wall and restore hope.
Danny volleyed just wide for the away side, but Zenit were looking increasingly fragile as they faced attack after attack, and their goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev was soon beaten once more, Allen volleying in the rebound after his initial header had been saved following a neat exchange between Jose Enrique and Jordan Henderson.
Liverpool were attacking the Kop End in the second period and, urged on by the fervent home support, continued to press, relentless in their search of the goals they needed, and were adamant they should have been awarded a penalty when Tomas Hubocan appeared to handle.
The Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers rejected those claims but when he penalised Luis Neto for a foul on Suarez, the Uruguayan curled a majestic free kick past Malafeev to level the scores on aggregate, and send Anfield into raptures.
But the comeback was not yet complete, with Zenit leading on away goals, the Reds required one more goal to win the tie, and thus poured forward in search of the crucial fourth. After Hulk sent a long range free kick just wide for Zenit, Suarez saw another set piece palmed away by Malafeev. The Russian stopper then tipped Steven Gerrard’s volley round the post, reacting magnificently as the ball bounced into the ground and seemed destined to loop into the back of the net.
Reina was forced to divert Hulk’s low strike away from goal after Agger’s error gifted the Brazilian a chance, before substitute Jonjo Shelvey smashed an effort into the side netting with time running out.
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” rang around Anfield as the crowd tried desperately to push their side on in search of the goal they needed, but Zenit held on to ensure the Reds’ valiant effort was ultimately in vain.