After the first two group stage matches saw a combined 13 goals, this one's a narrow 1-0 decided by an unrepeatable Downing (yes, Downing) strike. Sometimes football truly is unpredictable.
I hope it was worth it. I guess we'll find out Sunday.
Admittedly, I'm slightly biased, because I really don't care if Liverpool qualify for the knockout rounds. I realize that doesn't sound right, and I guess it's not that I don't care. But Liverpool's squad is threadbare – as everyone and their extended family has already noted – and the league is all-important. The Europa League's biggest draw was that Liverpool would be able to better develop its young talent. Well, that young talent is being developed in the league because of Rodgers' willingness to baptize the likes of Sterling, Suso, and Wisdom with fire as well as Liverpool's limited resources and injuries. So playing Gerrard and Suarez, plus Johnson, Skrtel, and Agger, against Anzhi four days before facing Everton makes little sense to me, even if Liverpool pretty much needed a win here in order to qualify thanks to the last home loss against Udinese.
All in all, it wasn't very different from Liverpool's last match: in line-up, tactics, or tone. Liverpool made just three changes from Saturday's XI – bringing in Downing, Assaidi, and Shelvey for Sterling, Suso, and Allen – and once again, Liverpool mostly dominated with little reward. Liverpool couldn't finish for love of money, while Suarez was eminently frustrated by referee, teammates, and his own touch. Suarez, Johnson, and Assaidi all shot too close to the keeper after excellent moves down Liverpool's left, where Liverpool focused its attacks all match long, while Shelvey shot over from Suarez's cut-back and Johnson failed to get a shot off or win a penalty after breaking into the box.
Anzhi made it surprisingly easy for the home side. They were expected to sit back and counter-attack at pace, as they've done to excellent effect in almost every Europa League away match so far. And Anzhi did defend strongly throughout. But the advertised counter-attack was pretty much nonexistent, despite Liverpool without any recognized holding midfielder as both Şahin and Gerrard frequently went forward, trying to find the breakthrough. Maybe I'm pessimistic, but I anticipated far more threat from the Russian Premier League leaders, especially given Liverpool's propensity for conceding on counter-attacks. But Anzhi didn't even take a shot until first-half injury time, a blast from distance by Smolov which didn't come close to displacing even a strand of Brad Jones' wonderful head of hair.
The above is slightly unfair to both Liverpool's midfielders and defense, especially the defense. With Johnson bombing forward relentlessly, Wisdom, Skrtel, and Assaidi were tasked with marking Samuel Eto'o and the midfield runners who eventually joined Anzhi's intermittent attacks. And all three were outstanding, especially Andre Wisdom, who out-muscled Smolov, Boussoufa, and Zhirkov whenever required, while Skrtel and Agger marked Eto'o into oblivion, forcing him to drop deep into midfield to pick up the ball. Which he's used to, often playing in a deeper role at Anzhi. But that's when Lacina Traore also starts; Hiddink's 4-2-3-1 with Eto'o up front played into Liverpool's hands. And while Şahin and Gerrard left Liverpool exposed through the middle at times, it didn't happen very often, as both improved their passing accuracy from recent matches. Gerrard gave the ball away when trying too hard early on, but quickly settled into a more disciplined style. Meanwhile, Şahin misplaced just four passes, of his 75 in total, in the entire match.
Liverpool brought on Sterling for Johnson at halftime – ostensibly in order to give him slightly more rest for Sunday's match but with a few Twitter rumors that he had also picked up a knock – and the substitution made all the difference. But not for the reason you expected. Downing switched to left-back, with Sterling replacing him on the right, and it was at left-back where Downing stunned the world. Sterling was fouled on the right, and Liverpool took the deep free kick short and quick, Şahin to Shelvey, who switched play to Downing on the opposite flank. The the much-maligned (and rightfully so) stand-in left back cut inside past Agalarov, who backed off, before hammering a shot past Gabulov with what we all previously thought was just his standing leg. He's a scoring machine in this competition, with all of two goals. Two winners against Eastern European opposition. Stewart Downing, he scores when he wants.
Liverpool had chances to extend the lead soon after, most notably when Suarez blasted narrowly wide with his weaker foot, then Shelvey scuffed a shot at the keeper after a Liverpool break, set up by Assaidi, but as on Saturday, the away side grew more dangerous as the clock ticked down. Hiddink sending on Traore in the 64th minute helped, but Skrtel and Agger continued to defend excellently, with the gargantuan striker limited to a single, near post opportunity, poked wide with Skrtel draped all over him. More threatening were chances from Boussoufa and two late, late shots by Carcela, but Liverpool held on slightly more comfortably than against Reading, even if the final few minutes were similarly nervy. The standout moment of the last ten minutes was a goal ruled out for Danny Agger, heading the ball out of the keeper's hand then rocketing a shot into the empty net – which is, you know, somewhat illegal, but should have counted anyway solely because it's Agger.
So, job done. Despite the stronger line-up than we're used to in this competition, Liverpool's best players were 18-year-old Andre Wisdom and the ever-dangerous Oussama Assaidi, a constant terror down Liverpool's left, followed closely by Skrtel, Agger, and Şahin.
The last time Gerrard and Suarez played in a Europa League match – the second leg against Hearts – was followed by Liverpool's worst performance of the season to date, the 2-0 home loss against Arsenal. That simply cannot happen again on Sunday. Not only is the Merseyside Derby one of the most important matches of the season at "normal" times, but Everton currently sit six points and eight places ahead of Liverpool in the table. Which has to be remedied as soon as possible.
This result, combined with Udinese's 1-3 loss in Bern, means Liverpool now top the group with six points compared to Anzhi and Udinese's four. The Reds have to travel to both Italy and Russia in the next two Europa League matches, but they're now in pole position to qualify halfway through the stage.
As said earlier, I hope it's worth it.