Suarez misfires to leave Liverpool’s season on brink
Liverpool are developing an unhealthy reputation for becoming one of Europe's most attractive losers.
Zenit St Petersburg discovered, just like West Bromwich Albion on Monday night, that a brief surge of momentum is all it takes to expose the soft underbelly of an idealistic but defective opponent.
"Part of our growing pains," was how Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers saw it. The agony for the club's supporters is excruciating on nights like this.
This was an exceedingly harsh defeat, but all too familiar. With two goals in two minutes in the second half, Hulk and Sergei Semak secured the kind of lead that only one of those legendary Anfield European nights can overturn.
"In six to 12 months' time we won't be making those mistakes," said Rodgers. "We've put in some terrific performances without the results. We need to be more clinical. It's the next goal in this tie that will be important. What gives us hope is we created enough to win the game. We ended up losing when we should have won the game. It was near perfect."
Until Hulk blasted into the top corner from 25 yards in the 70th minute, Rodgers would have been querying how his side were returning from St Petersburg with only a satisfactory draw in their baggage. Semak doubled Zenit's lead by dispatching Aleksandr Anyukov's cross.
Had Liverpool taken their opportunities, they would be five away goals in credit, but, just as with those recent performances at the Emirates and the Etihad, looking good means nothing when you cannot find a way to win. They too often combine carelessness in attack with a yielding defence. Rodgers's frustration was accentuated by the fact the culprit in the final third was Luis Suarez.
Criticising Suarez's finishing skills this season is like battering Superman for failing to arrive at the scene of every collapsing bridge. Without the Uruguayan, Liverpool could quite easily be struggling near the foot of the Premier League, and any hope of an Anfield revival in the near future rests on him ignoring the queue of European clubs awaiting his signature. But he will feel he owes his side after missing a sequence of chances.
His first opportunity came in the second minute, created by some trademark wizardry to create space in the box, but his shot drifted an inch wide.
Zenit's defensive frailties were further exposed when Nicolas Lombaerts inexplicably passed straight to Suarez for his second rejection of a gift after 16 minutes. This time the South American chose to dribble past the 'keeper, but the bobbling pitch intervened and the ball ran harmlessly out of play.
Suarez's frustration intensified five minutes before the break when Raheem Sterling's cross presented him with a tap-in. He tried to back-heel it and was again off target. The list of missed chances swelled in the second half, when Suarez was set up by Stewart Downing on the edge of the box but once more shot wide. Shortly after, Glen Johnson ran the length of the pitch only to have his goal-of-the-season attempt thwarted by 'keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev. It was another tale of 'what ifs' for Liverpool.
Zenit manager Luciano Spalletti knows what is in store next week, however. "At Anfield, the host fans become monsters and the players become beasts," he said.
There was at least one consolation. The scaremongering prior to the game which gave the impression Liverpool were playing in 1950s Alabama rather than St Petersburg proved unfounded. In fact, the growling Russian police looked more threatening than any sight of the militant fans' group 'Landscrona'.
The only reaction of note to a Liverpool player was reserved for former Zenit defender Martin Skrtel, who was applauded when his name was read out. Given Skrtel's culpability in both Zenit goals, he will no doubt be granted as much applause in the second leg.
Zenit demonstrated their attacking pedigree with a ruthlessness Liverpool crave. Pepe Reina, regularly criticised this season, was at his agile best to deny Hulk after five minutes, pushing a low drive wide.
The Brazilian also scuffed a shot against the post and you would not bet against Zenit succeeding where Liverpool failed and claiming the away goal.
When Rodgers led Liverpool into their Europa League campaign in the comforting July warmth, it felt like an inconvenient distraction. The frost left here is not just a consequence of sub-zero temperatures in the Petrovsky Stadium. Liverpool are in danger of being frozen out of the Europa League by Zenit.
Still in an unacceptable position in the league, unable to turn enterprising performances into points, Rodgers needs European success to ensure his debut campaign at Anfield amounts to more than unfulfilled promise.
"There is no way the tie is over," insisted Rodgers. If he can't inspire a comeback next week, the club's season probably is. (© Daily Telegraph, London)