Brendan Rodgers marched his men in red to the Turkish capital Thursday evening for the second leg of their Europa league tie with Besiktas. Liverpool supporters were dreaming of a repeat performance of that night in the Ataturk Stadium back in 2005. But with Steven Gerrard still nursing a hamstring injury, Martin Skrtel took the armband with the ambition of leading the team to the round of 16.
Kolo Toure and Dejan Lovren returned to the side that also featured Liverpool’s most potent attacking trio in Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Mario Balotelli. The Reds holding a mere single goal advantage, were sure to withstand the most hostile of environments as they looked for their youth-filled squad to finish the job.
Unlike the first leg, both teams were hesitant to attack straight from kickoff. Balotelli was quick to assert his physical presence and was twice called for foul in a dull opening 10 minutes before he was yellow carded in the 11th minute.
The Liverpool midfield of Emre Can and Joe Allen did well in the opening exchanges, quelling any Besiktas attack by keeping a high line in the middle of the park. Besiktas were up to the task though, and the visitors found it difficult as they tried to play the ball out from the back in the opening quarter of an hour.
Chances began to present themselves for both sides once the tempo settled. It was Liverpool’s high-caliber attacker that began to link up to present the best opportunity. A crisp ball sent from the midway line was flicked on by Balotelli to Sturridge whose back heel released Alberto Moreno down the right. The ball ricocheted in the Besiktas box and found the path of a lurking Sterling whose shot was well saved by Cenk Gonen.
Next it was Sturridge who tested the Besiktas back line, but his individual effort to find space was denied by a resolute Turkish defense. Jordan Ibe, who was so dominate in the first leg at Anfield, found Sterling after bossing the Besiktas right back yet again. Sterling turned provider instead of going for goal himself, but his cross was easily cut out from finding Sturridge’s run.
Sturridge struggled to impose himself on the game, both of his shouts for foul fell on deaf ears with Slovenian referee Damir Skomina convinced he went to ground too easily. The striker then found himself nearly through on goal only for his touch to uncharacteristically let him down.
Another Liverpool counter was launched by the relentless Moreno, who sent a ball over the top to Sturridge. The striker squared the ball to Sterling only to find his shot easily blocked by the resolute Besiktas rearguard and out for a corner. The resulting set piece headed just narrowly over by Skrtel.
The Reds continued to probe with caution as Balotelli, the obvious focal point for the Red’s attack, continued to be routinely fouled whenever he found possession. A slip by the Turkish midfield allowed the striker to charge down on goal. He played Sturridge in on the right, who took too much time to pick out a shot out yet, forced an honest save from Gonen. Balotelli who unmarked at the back post, couldn’t mask his disappointment when the ball wasn’t played back toward him.
Moreno was next to test Gonen when he exchanged passes with Sturridge only to find his near-post shot easily saved. Ibe almost crafted a breakthrough when he chased down a hopeless ball deep inside the host’s area, winning possession and feeding Sturridge who was promptly hacked down in the right channel before he could look to goal. Balotelli stepped up to take the free kick and before the ball could reach Lovren at the back post, Skrtel was judged to have fouled his man.
Olcay Sahan nearly drew first blood for the home side as he turned Toure inside out, forcing Mignolet into a brilliant save with just five minutes remaining in the opening half. The Liverpool attack was quick to respond though. Ibe fed Balotelli who had space but opted to shoot from distance. The audacious effort could only find the back row before the half was brought to an end.
Questions surrounding the impotent Liverpool attack in the first half and the potential liability of Balotelli who sat on an early yellow card had Rodgers taking stock of his bench for an answer. Nonetheless, Brendan could be pleased with the way his backline had handled the first half, hardly putting a foot in the wrong direction.
The Turks started the second half with guns blazing, knowing that nothing short of a goal would prolong the tie. Bilic shifted his men to new assignments, assigning Sahan to mark Ibe whenever the lively wide player received the ball. After Balotelli rattled Liverpool nerves with a foul just inside five minutes of the restart, Besiktas started to show signs of belief as they tenaciously grew into the game.
Mignolet was forced to save when Serdar Kurtulus drilled a shot in from outside the box as the Turkish onslaught showed no sign of letting up. Jose Sosa proved to be one of the main architects in the Besiktas resurgence, the defensive midfielder let fly only to be denied by a sprawling Mignolet as Liverpool struggled to find a way out of their half. Moreno finally provided a reprieve following the taxing spell of defending in the Liverpool half, winning a foul just at the midway line.
On the hour mark, Bilic introduced Borussia Dortmund academy product Tolgay Ali Arslam for the dominant Sosa, which paid immediate dividends. Gokhan Tore began to find space on the Reds right side after the change, and his cut inside sailed just over Mignolet’s goal. Wave after wave of Besiktas attack was repelled by a Liverpool rearguard that seemed comfortable to invite the pressure.
Substitute Arslam was leading the charge for the Turks, cracking a 40 yard attempt just passed Mignolet’s right post with the keeper well beaten. It was just seconds later that the German born Turk drew the home side level on aggregate.
The cross in by Tore was expertly trapped by Demba Ba and ball fell kindly to Arslam who curled a magnificent shot into the top corner. Replays confirmed the Liverpool keeper had no chance as the Ataturk masses reviled in their ecstasy, believing they could go on to advance.
Rodgers could see the collapse of his stubborn defense and replaced the inexperience of Ibe with the fresh legs of on-loan Atletico Madrid fullback Javier Manquillo. But the Turkish bombardment showed no signs of stopping as they kept possession deep in the Liverpool half for long spells at a time. With ten minutes left, Adam Lallana was introduced in place of the exhausted Balotelli, forcing Sterling into a more central role to partner Sturridge in attack.
The response was positive for the Reds as they opened more attacking avenues in the final third with the domineering Balotelli taken out of the equation. Lallana provided a creative spark in an advanced role in the midfield, but both teams struggled to create clear-cut chances as tired legs and minds began to prevail as the 90th minute approached.
It was the hosts that staged the late drama though. Arslam blazed through the Liverpool defense to win a late corner. Turkish hearts must have skipped a beat when the corner eventually found Ba in the scrum who smashed his effort off the crossbar destined to kill off the Liverpool resistance. Turkish support saw their blinding inferno end regular time rather than the Liverpool squad’s method of damage control and extra time appeared to favor the home side rather than the exhausted visitors.
As could be expected, the final 30 minutes resembled a booze-induced squabble rather than a fine-tuned title bout with both teams looking to regain their legs in the opening exchanges. Liverpool’s backline had endured a longer evening than expected, having weathered wave after wave of Besiktas attack. The momentum was controlled by the hosts who looked to have far more left in the tank.
Daniel Opare’s shot from distance rolled narrowly passed Mignolet’s left post before Lallana failed to control his touch on the byline following the his direct run at the Turkish defense. Another long ball aimed towards Ba was called offside after good combination play before a wayward Allen pass forced Mignolet into a fine save.
Both teams made changes after 105 minutes; Bilic replacing Kerim Koyunlu for the cavalier Sahan while Rodgers played his final card bringing on Ricky Lambert for the exhausted Sturridge- both sides seemed to anticipate penalties.
The marathon was obviously beginning to take its toll on both sets of starters and 10 minutes from time Can couldn’t complain as he was carded for assimilation after his run goal ward was halted by minimal contact. Liverpool were shouldering the majority of the defensive labor, yet managed to find an extra gear in the closing minutes as substitute Lambert imposed himself in a convincing fashion.
The final chance was a purely a result of the target man nodding down a dangerous ball in the box only to be wasted by the depleted Sterling. It was with relief that the whistle blew for both teams; Liverpool hoping to evoke the ghosts of Istanbul past to see them through, the Turks hoping their five-year absence from penalty shootouts would be a memorable one.
One by one each player approached the spot and took their chance: Ba followed by Lambert, Tore then Lallana, Veli Kavlak then Can, Hutchinson followed by Allen. The drama of Liverpool’s last shootout, a 14-13 marathon league cup encounter with Middleborough, might have anchored nerves with the scores level 4-4.
Arslan stepped up to power passed Mignolet and placed the pressure squarely on under-fire center back Lovren in order to keep the European dream alive. With each penalty dispatched more clinically than the last, it was no surprise that the Croatian wasn’t up to the task. His attempt sent off target and the Ataturk erupted as scouse hearts were crushed.
The dream was over and the nightmare began for the Reds as their focus now turned towards Saturday’s afternoon clash with second placed Manchester City at Anfield. But just how much damage has been done, both physically and mentally to Brendan Rodgers side is yet to be scene. Two days additional rest and the convenience of hosting Barcelona place the Citizens in pole position to leave Merseyside with all three points on Sunday. Pressure no doubt be on Rodgers and how he chooses to rotate his squad for the premier league encounter- a six-pointer desperately needed in Liverpool’s quest to qualify for Champions League next.
Rest assured, the depleted squad will be reliving the devastation from Thursday night and supporters will hope the nightmares of tonight will be short lived come Sunday afternoon.
By Kyle Hufnagel Twitter: @KyleHufnagel