Liverpool returned to the scene of one its greatest-ever triumphs but felt the agony of defeat instead of that familiar thrill of victory.
The Reds are out of the UEFA Europa League after Besiktas inflicted a double defeat on them Thursday at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul. Besiktas first won 1-0 in normal time. The Turkish club then topped Liverpool 5-4 in a penalty-kick shootout after 30 minutes of extra time failed to produce a winner in their round of 32 series.
Europa League elimination ends Liverpool’s participation in European competition in 2014-15. The loss is a bitter blow for Liverpool, which was in a good position to advance coming into the game but disappointed in its first appearance in Istanbul since the 2005 triumph in the UEFA Champions League.
The absence of a number of first-team regulars might have slowed Liverpool over the course of 120 minutes, but it doesn’t explain fully Liverpool’s failure to perform at the level this stage of the competition requires. A combination of nervousness and the rigors of a 2,218-mile trip likely had equally negative effects on Liverpool’s play.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers fit attackers Mario Balotelli, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Jordon Ibe into a jigsaw puzzle in an effort to devastate Besiktas with attacking power, pace and intent, but it didn’t have the desired effect. The foursome created moments of danger on their own but failed to gel into a constant and coherent threat.
The Reds started the game well and had the most promising scoring chances in the first half. Besiktas goalkeeper Cenk Gongen saved shots from Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge in the 20th and 33rd minutes of a cagey opening period. The Reds’ attacking performance deteriorated from there, as they ceded possession and control of the game to the hosts.
Rodgers also reverted from a three- to four-man back line, abandoning the system which has been so important to the Reds’ revival. Rodgers moved Emre Can into the midfield alongside Joe Allen in the center. The Can-Allen axis didn’t provide the desired blend of protection and invention, making the importance of the missing Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva and others all the more apparent. Liverpool defended regressively deeper and absorbed increasing amounts of pressure as the game wore on, inviting their own destruction. Besiktas finally broke through after 72 minutes.
Tolgay Arslan scored the game’s all-important first goal, giving Liverpool a choice between venturing forward in search of a potential winning goal and playing for penalty kicks. Whether by intent or circumstance, Liverpool picked the latter option.
Penalty-kick shootouts always entail some luck. Both teams seemed to have fortune’s favor in the first four rounds of spot kicks, but she abandoned Liverpool when it came to winner-take-all fifth round. Simon Mignolet dove the right way but failed to stop Arslan’s penalty kick. Dejan Lovren then stepped up and skied his effort over the crossbar, ending the Reds’ European adventure.
The back door into next season’s UEFA Champions League — the winner of this season’s Europa League will earn a spot in next season’s Champions League — now is slammed shut for the Reds. They now must finish in the top four of the Premier League, and the next three months will be an all-out sprint across domestic terrain.
Photo via LiverpoolFC.com