[dropcap]S[/dropcap]uffering only their second loss in 2015, Liverpool were eliminated from the Europa League by Beşiktaş, 5-4 on penalties yesterday evening. This just being the Round of 32 in the UEFA Europa League, it was surely an exit that came earlier than expected. The loss had many contributing factors, but above all, Liverpool just came out flat in Istanbul.
What appeared to be a sluggish start turned into a sluggish performance throughout, as a potent front line of Daniel Sturridge and Mario Balotelli with Raheem Sterling playing just behind could only muster two shots on goal, and four shots total among the three players.
Balotelli, finally given a start after finding his form of late, was utterly anaemic. An ugly combination of attempted flicks and back-heels rarely found the feet of fellow men in red. Balotelli’s inability to find an open target left Sturridge with very few touches throughout, and, ultimately, the attack sputtered. The only positive from Balotelli was his ability to draw fouls, as he managed to draw six. Of course, keep in mind that he essentially cancelled those out by committing six fouls as well. “Super” Mario was not so super last night.
Another failure in Liverpool’s game was the midfield. Missing the creativity of Philippe Coutinho and the leadership of Jordan Henderson on top of the already injured Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva, the Reds’ midfield got nothing going. Joe Allen lacks any dynamic skill to contribute in a large way, and the usually versatile Emre Can looked lost out there, making poor touches, and straying away from the great runs he usually makes on the ball when he’s playing in the back three.
A few positives can be drawn from this loss, as Simon Mignolet faced some tough shots from Beşiktaş, but the Belgian stood tall. There was nothing he could do on Tolgay Ali Arslan’s goal in the 72nd minute, as that was just a pure beauty of a goal.
Another Liverpool player that stood out was Kolo Toure. The centre back made his first appearance since returning from the African Cup of Nations, and he certainly impressed. He was a rock in the back, and made up for his inability to keep up with some of the Beşiktaş attackers with great positioning. It was good to see Mignolet keep up his good form for the first 120 minutes, but it wasn’t great that, though he guessed the right direction on four of five penalties, he could not save one.
Above all, this was the exact opposite of what Liverpool had hoped this match would amount to. Hanging on to a 1-0 aggregate lead, they played conservative football, as they were on their heels in the defensive third for much of the game. This led to Beşiktaş levelling the score, and that packed on 30 minutes of extra time, something that a team trying to get into the top four of the Premier League does not need three days before an enormous match against second-place Manchester City. Important players like Sturridge, Sterling and Martin Škrtel that played all 120 minutes will need a speedy recovery, or else Liverpool will be a fatigued team against a better-rested team that last played on Tuesday.
Perhaps an early ousting from the Europa League isn’t the worst thing in the world, as now Liverpool will see more time for rest in between Premier League games as they are vying for a top four spot. However, it’s never good to lose, especially for a team that has had so much momentum. Brendan Rodgers may need to get creative on Sunday, but hopefully not as creative as putting Dejan Lovren in as the fifth penalty taker. We can do without decisions like that.
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