As disheartening as it may be for Liverpool Football Club to be hosting a European match on Thursday nights, the Europa League is still very much an avenue to qualify for Champions League next season. The trophy room at Anfield is laden with European success, but Europe’s second tier competition was never the aim for Brendan Rodgers and his squad.
The occasion was still a cause for celebration as Daniel Sturridge was handed his full European debut and formed the Red’s attack alongside Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho. The only surviving members of the eight-nil demolition of Besiktas in 2007, Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva, were notable exclusions from the squad as both were still recovering from long term injuries.
Slaven Bilic deployed ex-Chelsea and Newcastle striker, Demba Ba, who was sure to keep the three-pronged Liverpool rearguard of Martin Skrtel, Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho busy throughout the first leg.
Sturridge and Jordan Ibe provided a glimpse of what Liverpool’s attack was capable of in the opening exchanges. Ibe powered past the Besiktas left back to find Sturridge in the area. The striker twisted away from another defender before his shot on target from a tight angle was well saved. The Turkish outfit, it seemed, would have to be resilient to survive an electric first leg.
Where Liverpool had youth, power and ambition, Besiktas relied on their experience, patience and veteran tricks-of-the-trade as they sought to contain the vigorous home side. Fans and players were finally able to catch their breath on the ten minute mark when a rogue supporter took to the pitch, nearly running the length of the pitch before he was apprehended.
Each team wasted ambitious chances, while Liverpool looked the side succeeding in regularly penetrating the opposition. Ibe in particular seemed to be unlocking defenders at his leisure with power, pace and confidence. The Turks never appeared to be far from a goal though, both Skrtel and Sakho were called on to intervene with last-ditch efforts to prevent them from testing Simon Mignolet.
Ba was a menacing presence throughout. Just when Liverpool seemed to be consistently dictating play, the Senegalese international found himself through on goal with only the Liverpool keeper to beat. If not for a brilliant save by Mignolet, the Reds would have found themselves with a mountain to climb before reaching halftime.
But persistence was key for the invigorated men in red, as chances began to come in rapid succession.
The Besiktas defense were guilty of falling asleep when a wayward defensive switch gifted Liverpool another corner. The result was nerve wracking for the visitors, but they were well organized and cleared all danger before Sturridge could pounce. The Redmen were hardly looking like slowing the tempo as Sturridge and Moreno were inches away from breaking the deadlock.
Moreno was again the danger man when a misplaced Besiktas pass found him miles out, struck a thunderbolt reminiscent of John Arne Riise only to be tipped over the bar for yet another corner. The resulting corner was wasted by a Henderson back heel that was never going to trouble the Turkish keeper.
The final minutes saw Ersan Gulum carded for a two-footed lunge on Moreno after the full back exchanged passes with Coutinho. Replays suggested that even though the Besiktas man retained the ball, he could be considered lucky it wasn’t worse.
Henderson was left frustrated as his resulting free kick from 20 yards out found the wrong side of the post after beating both the wall and Cenk Gonen, the Turkish keeper merely a spectator. Both teams went into their locker rooms ruing missed opportunities to establish a lead in the first 45 minutes.
The second half picked up right where the first left off, and inside two minutes Kopites believed their moment had arrived. Ibe was the architect again, wrong-footing a defender before pulling the ball back for Henderson. The cross found Coutinho at the back post but the Brazilian should have done better as he drove his shot into the ground and wide. Sturridge attempted to send the ball back in, but the Turkish defense did well again to clear their lines.
Liverpool seemed comfortable without their enigmatic captain. Henderson, who carried the burden of wearing the captain’s armband, executed pinpoint crosses with ease.
Five minutes into the second half, Lallana had only himself to blame for not putting his side ahead. Henderson drove a cross into Sturridge and the Turkish keeper seemed to be able to collect comfortably only for his own defender knock the ball loose. The ball dropped to Lallana just a few yards out, who seemed destined to score if not for the pressure applied by Gonen which caused his shot to blaze over.
Besiktas were beginning to grow into the game and looked to be find the net when an errant Can pass released a Turkish attack deep in Liverpool territory. Skrtel came to the rescue, dispatching the threat with steadfast ability.
The home side took their turn to probe next. Henderson chipped a ball over the Besiktas back line to find Sturridge who should have done better, yet still won the corner. Skrtel had his resulting effort blocked before Henderson dragged his attempt wide.
Both benches deployed reinforcements but it was the men in red that could offer a more threatening replacement. Mario Balotelli was introduced for Coutinho just past the hour mark which paid dividends immediately. The Italian was fouled in the left channel and honed his target in front of the Kop. His sizzling effort was straight at the keeper, bouncing dangerously before reaching Gonen.
The pace of the opening 70 minutes was beginning to take its toll on the starters, and Balotelli was able to win another free kick that Sturridge sized up. The striker was disappointed when his effort was deflected straight to the keeper.
With Rodgers looking to inject more pace into his side, Sterling began to warm up with Lallana appearing to be the man to make way. It wasn’t long after his introduction in the 76 minute that Sterling sprang into action, countering with lightning speed, feeding Sturridge on the right. With Balotelli unmarked at the back post, Sturridge opted to chip the keeper instead, to no avail.
The breakthrough moment the Kop so desperately wanted arrived five minutes from time. Balotelli released Ibe down the right, who powered past his man and was hacked down to the delight of the Anfield crowd.
Henderson half-heartedly stood at the spot when Balotelli took the ball off him accompanied by a cheeky pat on the back. The stand-in captain wasn’t pleased. Nonetheless, after Sturridge played peacekeeper, Balotelli stutter-stepped to the ball and fired into the back of the net which sent the Kop into rapture. Mario celebrated with a coy shrug.
Henderson would have little to complain about though, Balotelli’s 100 percent penalty record on English soil spoke for itself.
Besiktas managed to send a late scare through red hearts in the final moments with a free kick that was nearly turned in. The result may as well have been written in the stars as ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ filled the night sky on Merseyside. The home side will be traveling to Istanbul seeking more glory in the City on the Seven Hills.
When the dust has settled, the talking points will be like they always are with Balotelli, rife with controversy. The Villain and the Hero, the Virus and the Cure- only one thing can be sure-Mario Magnifico can enjoy his continued resurgence with a smile, if only for a night.
By: Kyle Hufnagel @KyleHufnagel