It wasn't one to remember, but it's job done. With Young Boys beating Anzhi in Bern, Liverpool needed a win, and somehow, Liverpool got the win.
On the whole, you know the routine. Liverpool scored a much-needed opener but suffered for not scoring a second when on top, pushed back in the late stages despite Pasquale's red card and nearly punished by their own inertia with the last kick of the game. But they weren't. I guess that's all that really counts in this competition.
We wondered which Udinese we'd get from the already-eliminated side: resilient opponents looking to end on a high note and build confidence from this weekend's victory or an XI going through the motions. For the first half at least, we got the latter, although Liverpool never "dominated" proceedings. But after a disjointed opening quarter, albeit with a couple of Udinese chances, Liverpool made the breakthrough from a well-worked set play: Suarez peeled away from his marker to knock down Shelvey's corner, followed up by a questionably onside Suso, who laid off for Henderson to slot home.
The rest of the first half was all Liverpool: a goal rightfully ruled out when the ball crossed the byline before Downing (also probably offside) found Johnson for a tap-in, Suarez setting up both Shelvey and Suso as well as shooting wildly wide of the near post with two players in better positions, and ex-Liverpool keeper Padelli wonderfully denying a Suarez bicycle attempt with the last kick of the half.
Knowing Liverpool, going into the interval having failed to take those chances prompted fears of an equalizer, whether against the run of play or with Udinese taking control in the second half. As in the previous meeting – where Liverpool also led 1-0 at halftime – Guidolin made halftime changes, bringing on center-back Benatia for holding midfielder Pinzi, both players recently back from injury. But then change didn't have the dramatic effect present in the last meeting, and Udinese kept playing four at the back, shifting second striker Fabbrini out wide and using Danilo as the holding midfielder, more a 4-1-4-1 than the first half's 4-2-3-1.
For 25 minutes, Liverpool remained the better side. Suso missed an excellent chance, while Padelli made smart saves on Henderson and Suarez shots; no one could have guessed that an ex-Liverpool keeper would prove hard to beat.
But having failed to get that needed second, Liverpool spent the final 20 minutes retreating, trying to keep possession but with no threat, hoping to prevent yet another unfortunate concession. Even after an incredibly card-happy referee showed Pasquale a second yellow with 10 minutes to play, although the sending off unsurprisingly restrained Udinese's efforts at a comeback. Still, Liverpool were never safe and increasingly nervous, and a laughable move in injury time ended with Di Natale blazing narrowly over with the last kick of the game after easily getting behind Carragher.
But for all the complaints, there really aren't that many complaints. Liverpool's defense was outstanding – except until that final frightening moment – the highlight of the match despite Udinese's lack of threat. The away side also coped admirably with an early setback, with Şahin forced off after 10 minutes due to what looked like a broken nose, replaced by Shelvey and with Allen assuming Şahin's role as the deepest midfielder. The Welshman proceeded to make four tackles and six interceptions, completing 90 of his 96 passes, and committing just one foul – even if he picked up a yellow for it. After some worrying signs of fatigue over the last six weeks, he was back to his best today. At the same time, Henderson had his best match of the season, not just for his first goal since May, but also for his constant running and closing down in midfield. Liverpool attempted exactly 1350 passes over these two matches against Udinese (to Udinese's 585), and it's no coincidence that the midfield was Henderson-Shelvey-Allen in both matches.
Not counting the qualifying rounds, Liverpool had won just two away matches out of 11 in the Europa League since dropping down into this competition in 2010 – against Unirea Urziceni (a club that no longer exists) that season and against Young Boys three months ago – drawing four and losing five. Liverpool couldn't lose today no matter what, while Young Boys' result ensured that Liverpool couldn't draw either. Despite the presence of more senior players than we're used to in this competition, it was still something of an unfamiliar side; Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Enrique, Allen, and Suarez are usual starters, but Suso, Şahin, Carragher, Downing and Henderson aren't. The defense, midfield, and attack all had changes to what we're used to, but all did enough to secure the victory.
Despite the multiple disappointments in the group stage – specifically against this opposition and Young Boys at Anfield – despite using mostly second-string players in this competition, Liverpool actually top the group. You're not allowed to complain after that.
There is country protection in the next round, meaning Liverpool can't face Chelsea, Newcastle, or Tottenham (if they qualify), while topping the group should ensure Liverpool are seeded for the upcoming draw. Had you offered me that back in September, I'd have bitten your hand off.