Everything works until it doesn't. The story of Liverpool's life, at least for the last three or so years.
Liverpool were clearly content with a 0-0, and lined up accordingly. And understandably so. Look, the starting XI, those available with Liverpool necessarily resting over-used senior players for the far more important league match on Sunday, says everything about squad depth. As rumored yesterday, Rodgers deployed five at the back. It wasn't a Hodgson-esque bus parking – Liverpool at least tried to keep possession rather than punt, retrench, and hope for the best – but demonstrated very little motivation to attack. And, subsequently, had next to nothing in attack. Neither fullback – the sole source of width – went forward consistently, and every player bar Morgan and sometimes Cole looked to quickly get back into position behind the ball as soon as Liverpool lost possession. Anzhi are rather dangerous on the counter-attack, at least going by their league form and the earlier Europa League games, if not the two matches against Liverpool.
It worked to a tee for 45 minutes and 50 seconds. Not counting one set play where Boussoufa floated a dangerous cross to no one, Anzhi were limited to a single chance of their own, of Liverpool's making, when Wisdom conceded possession to Zhirkov, but Jones made an excellent save on Eto'o low shot from the top of the box after the ex-Chelsea winger centered to him in space. Liverpool had nullified Anzhi to such an extent that Hiddink made a tactical change within 30 minutes, removing holding midfielder Ahmedov for the attacking winger Carcela – which helped the home side, but on the whole, Liverpool were still able to contain its opponents.
Of course, Liverpool had next to no opportunities of its own, the best and really only coming midway through the half, when Morgan's wonderful turn, footwork, and throughball put Henderson in on goal. Unconfidently, all too characteristically, the midfielder looked to cut the ball back between three defenders rather than shooting. You will not be surprised to learn it was intercepted and easily cleared. Admittedly, even if he hits the target, it's probably saved; the angle wasn't great and Gabulov charged off his line well. Shoot anyway. Take the chance. A slim opportunity's better than none. We've seen similar far too often from Henderson, and – for all his faults – that's why Shelvey's ahead of him in the pecking order. Not that Shelvey did much better today.
However, Liverpool's second mistake was unsurprisingly punished. Boussoufa found space in front of Henderson and Shelvey, unchallenged on the halfway line, lofting a ball over the top towards Traore. The striker cleverly, easily flicked the ball over and around Coates, as the center-back naively attempted to intercept, then raced towards goal, delightfully chipping the ball over Jones as he rushed out into no man's land before Carragher could get back. With the last kick of the half, Liverpool shoot themselves in the foot yet again.
Liverpool finally registered its first shot on target soon after the restart, Morgan playing a neat one-two with Cole before firing into the near post side netting, but the tempo and tenor remained the same until Rodgers made changes just after the hour mark.
I realize Liverpool's options are incredibly limited, but the substitutions seemed somewhat counterintuitive. Liverpool have next to nothing in attack, so Adam Morgan's the first player taken off for Dani Pacheco – who we all want to see more often but someone who is simply not a striker. Conor Coady was Liverpool's sole defensive midfielder, so he's taken off for Suso – who was probably Liverpool's best player despite featuring for half an hour – leaving Henderson and Shelvey to both sit deeper, negating their ability going forward while also removing a layer of protection against Anzhi's counter-attacks. Meanwhile, Joe Cole remains on the pitch for another 16 minutes.
Granted, Cole also had Liverpool's best chance of the game during those 16 minutes, when Suso's shot from distance was spilled by Gabulov, with Cole first to the rebound but shooting straight at at the keeper. Those were Liverpool's only two shots on target all half.
That Cole chance was sandwiched between two Anzhi opportunities where they really should have extended their lead. First, left-back Tagirbekov found space, crossing for Traore, who easily drifted behind Coates, allowed a free header from ten yards out, remarkably saved by Jones. Two minutes later, the same defender was caught flat-footed high up the pitch when Anzhi countered, as Traore latched onto Jucilei's through-ball to run unhindered on goal, somehow shooting wide when trying to find the low corner. Coates made some difficult stand-up tackles look easy and Traore is an incredibly hard player to mark, but he also nearly cost Liverpool three goals. And did cost Liverpool one.
Any positives? Suso was excellent as an impact sub. Tactically, Rodgers' initial decisions made sense, and Liverpool adapted to the unfamiliar formation surprisingly well considering how rarely it's been used and how raw most of the starting XI were. Downing and Flanagan did well as wing-backs (albeit very defensive wing-backs), Wisdom looked more comfortable with more defensive cohorts, and Adam Morgan and Conor Coady both did decent jobs: Coady on his senior debut, Morgan in only his second appearance. Brad Jones made a couple of crucial, crucial saves.
The negatives? Henderson and Shelvey (the former more than the latter), the substitution of Adam Morgan, Joe Cole playing anywhere, and continued costly defensive mistakes, almost all coming on opposition counter-attacks. Seriously. That really has got to stop.
Of course, the biggest positive is that none of Suarez, Gerrard, Agger, Allen, Skrtel, Sterling, Enrique, Johnson, and Reina even travelled, allowing those crucial players some much-needed rest. And that Liverpool's results in two of the first three group games allowed them to make these changes and incur this loss without really threatening its chances to qualify from the group stage. Both subsequent matches, against Young Boys and at Udinese, will be difficult, but the experience gained and lessons learned should hopefully be more beneficial than the result is costly.