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Saturday 18 November 2017

Mario Balotelli avoids spot of bother with late winner

Liverpool 1 Besiktas 0

Mario Balotelli celebrates scoring Liverpool's winner from the penalty spot
Mario Balotelli celebrates scoring Liverpool's winner from the penalty spot
Mario Balotelli scores a late winner for Liverpool from the penalty spot
Liverpool's Mario Balotelli discussing who should take the penalty with captain Jordan Henderson
Liverpool's Jordan Ibe battles for the ball with Besiktas' Olcay Sahan
Liverpool's Alberto Moreno in action with Besiktas' Veli Kavlak

Damien Spellman

Mario Balotelli's effort to mount the greatest Liverpool comeback since the Merseyside club's European Cup win in Istanbul continues. The Italian came off the bench to strike what could prove a pivotal winner against Besiktas, giving Brendan Rodgers's side a slender lead to take to Turkey next week.

Typically, Balotelli's contribution - an 85th-minute penalty - was not without contention. He appeared to defy the orders of his captain, Jordan Henderson, to grab the match ball before confidently tucking it past keeper Cenk Gonen at The Kop end. Henderson looked unimpressed by the mutiny, and there was little emotion from Rodgers, but the finish was impressive enough.

After scoring the late winner in his late Anfield appearance against Tottenham, and changing the momentum of last weekend's FA Cup tie at Crystal Palace, these are heady days for the £16million striker.

Liverpool can now head to the Ataturk Stadium - scene of that heroic triumph for Rafael Benitez's side in 2005 - in confidence.

They will not need a fightback of the epic proportions achieved in Istanbul, but there is mini renaissance of sorts afoot given where they where a few months ago.

Liverpool were quick out of the blocks, Jordon Ibe the most potent attacking threat in his right wing-back role. Ibe displayed his trickery to find Daniel Sturridge in space in the box after just four minutes. Sturridge bamboozled his marker and fired in a shot from a tight angle, but he would have needed to defy physics to beat 'keeper Gonen from such a space. The ball bounced to safety.

Any thoughts such enterprising home attacks would be the theme of the first half were premature as the Turks settled and pounced on any empty spaces Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho attempted to occupy.

They looked a side of pedigree, certainly posing Liverpool more problems than recent Premier League opponents.

Threatening

Inevitably, Demba Ba was threatening The Kop. There was a certain irony that this was the first Anfield fixture this season when Ba's name could not be heard in this stadium.

His goal in the climax to last season's title race has been celebrated in the opposition stand on a weekly basis and he should have added another to his Merseyside portfolio on 36 minutes.

Olcay Sahan's piercing through ball sent Ba into a one-on-one with Simon Mignolet in what seemed a repeat of the Chelsea strike that caused Liverpool such heartbreak.

This time Ba fluffed his lines, although credit the Belgian for an excellent save, pushing the ball behind for a corner.

Veli Kavlak had also gone close from a corner as Besiktas proved there was more to their game than resistance, while Liverpool were increasingly looking for the spectacular to break through.

Alberto Moreno struck from 30 yards, demanding Gonen make a fingertip save, and Henderson was inches wide from a free-kick with the goalkeeper opting to watch.

There was a problem to solve for the Liverpool manager at half-time, however. Liverpool's passing was neat but needed more tempo as the Besiktas defence was so well protected.

The urgency was apparent at the start of the second half when Lallana should have put his side ahead on 49 minutes. Gonen, deputising for injured first-choice keeper Tolga Zengin, fumbled Henderson's cross and Lallana had the seemingly easy task of finding an empty net. In going for power he blasted over the crossbar.

Ba might be inclined just to stand around waiting for stray back passes, judging by the chance gifted him by Emre Can on 53 minutes, but again the African did not take advantage. A few uncharacteristic errors by the young German may have prompted Rodgers's change after an hour, when he introduced Dejan Lovren for Joe Allen. Can moved into midfield. Balotelli also replaced Coutinho in a more surprising change, but the Italian was straight into the action forcing Gonen to save from a 25-yard free-kick.

Balotelli was in a lively mood, starting to show some of the ability that has been notorious only by its absence for most of the season. His confidence has grown in recent weeks.

Rodgers's final change sent on Raheem Sterling for Lallana, but it was the outstanding Ibe who made the difference prompting a reckless challenge from Ramon Motta enabling Balotelli to claim the winner from the penalty spot.

Henderson wanted it, but Mario and Liverpool would not be denied. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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