IT might not be the Champions League but so much of Liverpool’s folklore relates back to adventures in Europe that one season out of any of the UEFA competitions was one season too many. Tonight was Liverpool’s chance to make the group stages of the Europa League and the possibility of a host of new adventures. For 84 minutes it looked like it was going to be a straightforward step into the next stage – until Liverpool fell to another self-inflicted wound
And then Luis Suárez stepped up. With time ticking down the man who loves Liverpool as much as Liverpool loves him stepped up and won the tie all by himself.
Standing in the way of Liverpool’s journey to the group stages was a Hearts side who had restricted Liverpool to a solitary goal in last week’s first leg –courtesy of an own goal. A clean sheet from the Reds – yet to concede in this competition this season – would be enough to see the home side through. Not that Liverpool played for a 0-0. Not that Hearts really threatened until late.
A Liverpool side of the past few seasons would have collapsed after the Hearts opener. Liverpool under Rodgers have far more spirit. And Luis Suárez is brimming with it.
The first real scare for Liverpool came a minute before the Hearts goal with a free kick outside the area. That hit the wall and went out for a Hearts corner, which Liverpool failed to deal with. Although David Templeton will be credited with the goal Pepe Reina will look on it as an own goal.
Before the game Brendan Rodgers made it clear that although he wouldn’t be using his strongest available side for this match, as was the case for the first leg, he would put out a team to win the game, adding: “Some of the bigger players will be involved in the second leg.”
As it was the team wasn’t too far from a first choice eleven. Lucas was unavailable having suffered the thigh injury that could keep him out for up to three months but despite Sunday’s visit of Arsenal Rodgers wasn’t going to leave too much to chance for the visit of the Scots. Johnson, Borini, Enrique, Agger and Sterling were all on the bench, but Reina, Suárez, Gerrard, Kelly, Allen and Skrtel all started.
Downing started at left-back, as suggested on the TAW podcast all those months ago. Jamie Carragher returned, having missed out on Sunday, starting alongside Martin Skrtel, straight back into action having had a certain amount of blame for Liverpool conceding the second on Sunday – and back on the right of the two centre-backs for this one.
Notable by their absences were players like Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll, both looking at the exit door Brendan Rodgers has been pointing them to ahead of tomorrow night’s transfer deadline, not risked in case it stopped any chance of them walking through it tomorrow night. It later emerged that Andy Carroll’s departure had been confirmed, by way of a loan.
Nuri Sahin wasn’t registered in time to play tonight but youngster Adam Morgan got the chance to start, the latest academy graduate to get a chance under Rodgers.
A sell-out crowd saw Liverpool dominate the game with Hearts rarely coming close to troubling Pepe Reina’s goal.
Perhaps that’s why Reina was caught out.
Joe Allen once again showed why Rodgers was prepared to pay £15m for him and why he thinks that will one day be seen as a bargain.
The game really came to life after the hour mark. Sterling had been brought on for Adam Morgan and Liverpool’s chances started to increase. A great turn from Suárez, who managed a pass to Gerrard before being fouled, led to a shot from Gerrard who had been allowed to play on by the referee. The shot was charged down before Sterling got a cross in collected by the keeper.
Then a couple of chances for Suárez. One on one with the keeper he found himself taken wide, too wide, by which time the Hearts defence had regrouped and cleared for a corner. Then some good work from Shelvey saw Suárez set up with another chance, this time curling it narrowly wide of the keeper’s right-hand post.
Hearts made a couple of changes but it didn’t stop Gerrard from getting a decent shot in from 25 yards out, narrowly wide of the goalkeepers left-hand post in front of the Kop.
Then it was the turn of Sterling, dribbling and dribbling past Hearts defenders until he went to ground in the box. The referee waved play on, but Hearts were under the cosh.
Liverpool remained in control for the rest of the match, without perhaps always looking as dangerous as they should have done, until that Hearts free kick that preceded their goal. The response from Liverpool to that goal was to step up another gear, in the end the equaliser on the night, the winner over two legs, was inevitable.
That it fell to Suárez, on the wrong end of more unoriginal copied chants from the opposition support, was perhaps a bit of poetic justice.
The Europa League may not offer the financial rewards of its big brother but Liverpool need to be in Europe and this result means that will be the case at least until the end of the year. Thoughts now turn back to the league and the visit of the side who lost out to Liverpool in the chase for Nuri Sahin. Arsenal might be a tougher test than Hearts, but on this showing Liverpool have stronger hearts than Arsenal.