3-3 on aggregate, Zenit win via away goals
Suarez 28' 59'
If it wasn't for individual errors…
That's this season's mantra. I can't decide whether it's a less irritating mantra than "how did you hit the woodwork again?" but neither's very reassuring.
So close, and yet so far. If only.
Liverpool's team selection was somewhat surprising, more a 4-3-3 than we've seen lately with Allen and Gerrard both ahead of Lucas and Henderson coming inside almost every time Liverpool attacked, which was clearly an attempt to keep possession in Zenit's half and to force Zenit's three midfielders deeper and deeper to remove the supply line for possible counter-attacks. And Liverpool dominated possession early on, but with moves often breaking down in the final third, as the front four or five were unsurprisingly unfamiliar with each other's movement.
Then, those stated fears were realized fairly early as Zenit opened the scoring on the break, through a catastrophic goal almost completely of Liverpool's own making. Zenit hoofed clear out of their defensive third, straight to Carragher just inside the Liverpool half. Hulk pressed quickly, as Zenit pressed fairly relentlessly throughout the match, but Carragher still had to opportunity to slam it back to Reina. Unfortunately, off balance, he barely made contact, incredibly similar to when Suarez forced Distin into the same error in last season's FA Cup semi-final. Like Suarez in that semi-final, Hulk made no mistake when one-on-one with Reina, slotting past the keeper before Reina could close the distance or Agger could recover. It was a rather disappointing way to mark what would end as Carragher's last European match, especially as "we all dream of a team of Carraghers" had been ringing around Anfield just before the goal.
Had Liverpool not conceded a horrific opener, Liverpool wouldn't have had an unsurmountable mountain to climb. But at least the concession prompted the proper response. It would have been all too easy for heads to drop as Liverpool needed four against the Russian champions after another near-unbelievable setback in a season that's seen far too many of them.
But not today.
Liverpool immediately got back on the front foot, once more pinning Zenit deep, with dangerous shots from Suarez and Henderson blocked. Agger, getting one of his rushes of blood to the head, immaculately bombed forward from defense, winning a free kick just outside the box after some surprisingly deft footwork. Which Suarez proceeded to hammer into the back of the net, aiding by Henderson creating space in the middle of Zenit's wall.
With Liverpool scoring just nine minutes after Zenit's opener, it was game back on. Liverpool camped in the opposition's half, winning free kick after free kick, corner after corner, but disappointed with each's delivery. Zenit continued to show its potential on the counter, with Danny chesting down and volleying inches wide after an early cross, followed quickly by Anyukov's shot from nowhere narrowly into the side-netting.
Liverpool needed to score before halftime to truly believe. Three goals in 45 minutes wasn't impossible, but two goals would make that mountain look much smaller. And then, just before halftime, Liverpool got that goal: a excellent move down the left between Henderson and Enrique featuring Henderson's one-touch throughball to the left-back at the byline, Enrique's cutback deflected to Allen, who saw his header saved but followed in to chip the rebound over a prone Malafeev. Game on.
Spaletti responded with two half-time changes, although both were somewhat forced. Lombaerts picked up a serious injury just before the interval, requiring Criscito to come on and Hubočan to shift to center-back. Danny may not have been 100% after picking up a knock last week, and was replaced by Fayzulin.
But the changes didn't blunt Liverpool. And Suarez continued to be at the epicenter, setting up a Downing shot that was blocked, then should have earned a penalty for handball on Hubočan, and then forced an excellent save from Malafeev with a toe-poke.
And then, in the 59th minute, he did this:
Despite getting the third, just one goal away from victory, Rodgers stuck with the substitutions lined up before the third goal: Shelvey and Assaidi (he lives!) for Henderson and Allen, going for all-out attack in the final half an hour. But the all-out attack didn't come.
Liverpool took 11 shots in the first hour, with six on target. In the final 30 minutes, in a game where Liverpool had to score just one more, Liverpool took just five more, only hitting the target once. To be fair, four of those were decent chances. One of the off-target shots was a narrowly-wide Suarez free kick which still forced a save from Malafeev, smartly pushed wide rather than into the mix for a potential rebound. Two minutes later, the Russian keeper made a phenomenal stop on Gerrard's awkward blast; I've still little idea how he got back into position to prevent yet another Stevie G special. The jerk. Shelvey charged onto a loose ball but could only fire into the side-netting, while Agger flicked a header from Liverpool's ninth corner wide.
That said, all of those chances came before the 80th minute, and bracketed another near-goal from Hulk after Zenit again pressed Liverpool – this time Agger – into a mistake in its own half, remarkably saved by Reina. The last throw of the dice, Sterling for Downing in the 84th couldn't change proceedings, as Zenit defended excellently, not allowing Liverpool to dice its way through the deep, resilient back-line, forcing them wide to attempt crosses. Which, as we painfully learned last season, Liverpool aren't very good at. And that was with Outstanding Header™ Andy Carroll in the side. But Zenit defended well for almost the entire match; it's no coincidence that two of Liverpool's three goals came from direct free kicks. Only Allen's strike featured the type of build-up play that's seen Liverpool thrive, and that wasn't one of Liverpool's seven created chances either because of the deflection on Enrique's cutback and the eventual goal coming from a rebound. I'll reiterate: 16 shots, but only seven chances created. None of them clear-cut.
So much good, but just not enough. Barely not enough. Liverpool's fight-back was massively impressive. Lucas and Enrique were superb, as was Gerrard in everything but set plays. Suarez scored two monumental free kicks; if Bale had scored one similar to his second, the entire British press corps would suffer from priapism for the next week.
Look, despite the disappointments, there are no scapegoats. Suarez may have been an irrepressible genius today, but don't forget that Liverpool are exiting this competition because of his wastefulness in the first leg as much as Carragher's error today. Rodgers' substitutions didn't work as planned, but his initial tactics helped Liverpool nearly dominate proceedings, including bringing back Allen, who scored what was almost the vital second.
I've usually little time for moral victories, but today is a moral victory. Liverpool are out of the Europa League, but not only is there clearly something to build on for the future – and this team will be even better with Sturridge and Coutinho in the side – the confidence displayed by continuing to fight regardless of the early setback is a mentality that Liverpool's lacked all too often during the failings over the last three or four seasons.
Now we need to see it during the last three months of the league campaign.