Suarez can't save Reds
(3-3 on agg, Zenit go through on away goals)
Published 22/02/2013 | 04:00
Liverpool did not just stroll down memory lane, they almost removed a blockade to sprint down it before tripping at the finish line.
Needing four goals in 70 minutes to overturn a deficit of their own creation, they nearly pulled it off before going out at the Europa League last-32 stage to Zenit St Petersburg in gallant circumstances.
Luis Suarez scored two superb free-kicks to almost create one of those extraordinary European evenings Anfield delights in serving up.
It proved to be in vain as Zenit went through courtesy of Hulk's 19th minute away goal, the tie ended 3-3 on aggregate. Liverpool's task was made Herculean after Jamie Carragher's early mistake enabled the Brazilian striker to claim the decisive strike.
Suarez's brilliance restored hope, and Joe Allen was also on the scoresheet, but Brendan Rodgers' side had given themselves too much to do, again left cursing their own mistakes.
If ever there was an example of a club going at full throttle in an effort to replicate its past, this was it. The intention was for Liverpool to summon a few ghosts from a splendid European history. They also needed to exorcise some from less glorious recent years.
At times it all felt a little too desperate – the will wasn't lacking but was really needed was the acquisition of the necessary belief.
Match announcers tried to their best to lead the cheerleading, songs associated with the 2005 Champions League run given particular prominence. It felt a little like clumsy stage management before kick-off (even 'You'll Never Walk Alone' was played far too early).
Events on the pitch played out in an eerily similar fashion, Liverpool seeking to not only recreate a famous European comeback, but contrive a situation in which make they might retrieve the most seemingly irredeemable position they've ever faced.
Liverpool have scored two when needed, three even, but never four. After Hulk's strike on 19 minutes, that was what was exactly what was required.
Rodgers said the first goal was more crucial than an early one, but that prediction was undermined when Carragher under-hit his back pass straight into the path of the Brazilian striker. He completed the formalities with a slick finish.
On his 150th appearance, this was the cruellest of setbacks for the player who was eager to ensure this was not his European farewell.
If Liverpool needed to climb the Himalayas before the game, they now had Mount Everest in their sights too.
Anfield didn't need to feel any more galvanised, but it was as if this served only to intensify the atmosphere. It couldn't end like this for Carragher, the players seemed to think – it just wouldn't be right.
The stirring reaction ensured Liverpool ended the first half in exactly the same position as they'd started.
Before they'd scored, Zenit looked nervous, especially full-back Aleksandr Anyukov and centre-half Luis Neto.
Hope remained so long as Liverpool kept creating opportunities, and Suarez equalised on the night on 28 minutes.
Daniel Agger's elegant run – of the kind that suggest he's worth a try in midfield as much as centre-back – was crudely ended by Nicolas Lombaerts.
Suarez had to score and duly obliged, slamming through the wall.
Two minutes before half-time, Allen, who was enjoying himself in a more advanced role, benefited from an excellent move down the Liverpool left.
Henderson sent Enrique scurrying and his cross was headed straight at Vyacheslav Malafeev by the Welshman, who readjusted smartly to volley in the rebound.
In the melee, the one accomplished Russian centre-half, Lombaerts, was injured and needed to be replaced at half-time. Something seemed to be in the air. Now the belief was oozing from Rodgers' side, buoyed the damage of the early calamity was repaired.
They still need two in front of the Kop in the second half, but Luciano Spalleti's half-time team talk was now tougher than that of the Liverpool manager.
Suarez forced Malafeev into a save on 50 minutes with an improvised toe-poke, and for Tomas Hubocan, surviving a penalty claim for handball in front of a screaming Kop was a feat of its own.
Inexplicably, Zenit looked like they were holding on, an unthinkable prospect 30 minutes earlier.
By the time Suarez swerved his second free-kick beyond Malafeev, an absolute beauty from 25 yards, it really was starting to feel just like old times.
The Uruguayan brushed himself down after being tripped by Neto and sent the stadium into raptures.
Rodgers, somewhat surprisingly, went for the jugular immediately with a couple of substitutions, Shelvey replacing Allen and Ousamma Assaidi on for Henderson. That felt a risk, even though Liverpool still needed one more to complete their fightback. Both Allen and Henderson had excelled.
If anything, the changes caused a period of readjustment for Liverpool. Suarez almost made it a hat-trick of free-kicks on 70 minutes, Malafeev shoving a low drive to safety as the Russians were momentarily entrenched in their own half.
The keeper then threatened to end the evening inspired, flapping wide a Gerrard volley. Zenit have some pedigree, though, and Reina was needed to prevent Hulk's low strike ending the tie on 73 minutes.
Liverpool had bizarrely given themselves longer than was imaginable to find the winner, the frantic finale ensuring this would either be a night of glorious failure or potentially season defining euphoria.
Sadly for Rodgers, it was the former of the two. (© Daily Telegraph, London)