Liverpool win 2-1 on aggregate
A match for experimentation, a result that came oh so close to going the wrong way.
Downing at left back, a more orthodox 4-3-3 with Shelvey and Gerrard notably ahead of Allen, and Henderson and Morgan – making his senior debut – on the left and right of the front three.
But still the same old Liverpool. Chances missed and dominance unsecured, but Liverpool looked like holding on to its narrow aggregate advantage. But then, with just over five minutes left, an unfathomable error leading to an opposition goal, this time from Pepe Reina.
It had been just one of those days for Suarez, mis-controlling almost everything, missing chance after chance. Then it was just one of those days where Suarez singlehandedly saves Liverpool.
Hearts actually out-shot Liverpool in the first half, but were limited to blasts from distance that never tested Reina. Liverpool were expectedly disjointed in attack with the aforementioned changes, but managed to hit the target with all five of its first half shots. Which has to be a record for recent seasons. Suarez had a header cleared off the line after Morgan headed Downing's cross back across goal, McDonald made a wonderful save on Gerrard's toe-poke after a time-machine barnstorming run through three defenders. Morgan looked as if he had a debut goal, a point-blank tap-in from Suarez's pass, but the Uruguayan took the ball just over the byline before centering. Still, it looked a matter of time before Liverpool opened the scoring.
And the home side continued its total control of the ball after the restart, camped in Hearts' half with four corners in the first 15 minutes, but failed to test the keeper; the lone shot until the hour-mark was Shelvey's from distance, rising well over the bar. So much for the first half accuracy. It was fun while it lasted.
Sterling replaced Morgan in the 62nd; it was surprising to see Morgan taken off considering his fresh legs, and it was surprising to see Sterling stay on the right, as Henderson remained on the left, but Liverpool dramatically improved. Sterling's pace and trickery made a marked difference in Liverpool's output, with six outstanding chances in the subsequent ten minutes. But they were still six chances that Liverpool failed to convert. Suarez could only hit the post, via deflection, after rounding the keeper, then blasted wide of the far post from a narrow angle with two open players around the six-yard box. He nearly latched on to a brilliant through-ball from Henderson, only to see the keeper just win the race. Sterling and Gerrard shot wide from distance, then the captain had a shot saved at the near post after Sterling's mazy run.
Liverpool's began to slow the tempo around the 75th minute. Borini replaced Henderson, but the home side seemed happy to hold what it had. And it looked like they'd see it out fairly comfortably, despite Taouli's speculative shot from distance – Hearts' first effort of the second half – and despite the 20-yard free kick when Sterling fouled Templeton, tracking back too aggressively, which led to Hearts' first corner of the match when the wall deflected his shot well over.
But Liverpool failed to fully clear, and Sterling and Borini failed to close down Templeton. Worst of all, Reina spilled Templeton's shot, even though it was straight down his throat, from 25 yards out, and he saw it all the way. It was the first save he had to make, and he utterly failed to do so. I wish I could say it was wholly out-of-character, but that doesn't seem to be true anymore. Today's howler joins previous like the one against Arsenal on the opening day of 2010-11 or at Fulham in a 0-1 loss last December. Sadly, there's probably more, but those two spring immediately to mind. This analysis by Bass Tuned to Red doesn't make for pleasant reading.
That Liverpool didn't collapse, didn't crawl its way into extra time then maybe, maybe not win on penalties at least demonstrates some progress. It demonstrates self-belief, confidence, a never-say-die attribute that was lacking all too often in the last two seasons.
Or it demonstrates just how brilliant Luis Suarez can be.
Four minutes after Hearts' equalizer, Borini brought the ball out of defense, handing off to Suarez on the halfway line. McGowan's slip, over-committing when trying to intercept, certainly helped matters, but Suarez turned away fiercely, almost immediately reaching full speed. Unable to stop him, Zaliukas tried to push him wide, and mostly succeeded in the attempt, but that didn't take into account Suarez's ability to score from absolutely no angle even after he's missed multiple chances from better angles. McDonald gave him too much of the near post, neither Grainger nor Webster retreated to cover the goal line quick enough, but few strikers in the world can score from that spot. We've seen Suarez do it multiple times.
So, a let off. Maybe some much-needed good fortune. Some of the old faults reoccurring – especially in the continued inability to score when dominant – but some excuses given Liverpool's experimentation and the freakish quality of Hearts' equalizer.
Downing looked capable at left-back, but spent the majority of the match as as auxiliary attacker given how often Liverpool pinned Hearts back. Henderson also did well on that flank, a more-than-willing runner, if far better when coming inside to deliver through-balls and work one-twos with other midfielders. Shelvey looks more comfortable every match he plays. Sterling again made a massive difference, even if his end product was lacking, explainable by needing to run at defenders then cut in and shoot, hard to do on the right flank for a right footer. And both Gerrard and Suarez created excellent chances, linking up as we know they're capable of, even if almost all of those chances went begging.
Once again, Joe Allen's probably my player of the match, three of three when he's started. Templeton, usually a winger but in the hole behind Sutton today, actually did fairly well shadowing the Welshman, but it did little to hinder his influence. More important than Allen's calm, tempo-setting passing was his defensive positioning, tackling, and interceptions – a large reason why Hearts were wholly limited to shots from distance, even if one eventually went in through no fault of his own.
Of course, Allen, Suarez, and Gerrard all played 90 minutes, yet Liverpool could only draw, and now all are on short rest before Arsenal on Sunday. But Liverpool are through to the group stage, with the resulting boost in confidence that brings, before facing Arsenal on Sunday.