THE Europa League is a competition seen as the European equivalent of the League Cup – nice to win but nobody ever seems to take it too seriously unless they actually do win it. Tonight Udinese were the visitors for Liverpool’s first home game in the group stages of Big Ears’ little brother. How seriously were Liverpool going to take it?
No matter how seriously Liverpool took the game it was never going to be easy to predict what the outcome would be. Liverpool have played exciting, entertaining football all season but results have been hard to come by. Tonight wasn’t any different.
When Brendan Rodgers was asked what side he’d put out for this one he answered the way he always does. He said he’d put a side out that he thought could win it. Given the quality on show from younger players in recent matches there could hardly have been any complaints had he gone with a predominately young side, but as it was Rodgers went with a side not short of experience, a mixture of first-choice players and some of his more experienced fringe players.
Of the players considered regular starters Rodgers gave Pepe Reina, Glen Johnson, Joe Allen, Jonjo Shelvey and Fabio Borini an outing, joined by players like Carragher, Henderson and Downing who have found themselves on the fringe of Rodgers’ starting elevens. As for the bench – Steven Gerrard, Luis Suárez and Raheem Sterling were there, if needed.
It was up to those starters to ensure those big guns on the bench weren’t needed against the side that is the biggest threat to Liverpool in this group – and for the first half they did exactly that.
Udinese were taking it seriously too, Pereyra getting a talking to in the first minute after an altercation with Joe Allen. Downing – missing recent games as the likes of Suso and Sterllng have been taken the chances they were given – started out like he was going to try and take his chance too.
Seven minutes in and there were chances at both ends. Shelvey lined up a shot that deflected off a Udinese defender for a corner. That corner almost saw Liverpool score, Brkik fumbling a save, before Udinese countered with Carragher, the last man, finding some pace and clearing it for a Udinese corner.
Reina parried a shot away from that corner, the ball came straight back to him, he tipped it round the post – but the referee had blown for an infringement anyway. Another good save from Pepe that won’t count.
Just after the quarter hour mark Borini managed to get a shot away but dragged it wide. A couple of minutes later Borini had another chanced but fluffed his shot.
Liverpool continued to press and some flowing football saw Jonjo Shelvey create the goal he scored for the opener. Shelvey passed wide to Downing before running into the box. Downing looked up and crossed a perfect ball onto Jonjo’s head.
Liverpool were in control and Udinese were restricted to occasional counter-attacks. Defence-splitting passes from Liverpool weren’t quite coming off but the home side looked ready to build on their lead in the second half.
One constant threat in the first half was Di Natale. A rarity – a bad Joe Allen pass – almost led to a Udinese equaliser after half an hour, Di Natale shooting over from the resulting change in possession.
That threat came to fruition within thirty seconds of the restart with Glen Johnson, not playing as well at right-back as he has of late at left-back, gifting possession to Udinese and Di Natale showing why he is still feared.
Liverpool looked to get back into it and Glen Johnson, trying to atone for that mistake, got the ball into the box but Jordan Henderson wasn’t going to repeat what Shelvey did in the first half.
Just after the hour mark Rodgers threw two of those big guns on, Suárez and Gerrard taking the place of Assaidi and Henderson. Borini moved to the left, Suárez moved into the middle and immediately his trickery led to a Udinese booking. A few minutes later and it was Downing being wrestled to the ground, another yellow card for Udinese but nothing from the resulting free-kick.
Liverpool had continued to attack but were again caught out at the back and Udinese were in front, courtesy of a Sebastian Coates own goal.
With Udinese fans still celebrating going in front Pasquale put them out of sight. Liverpool’s defence, having allowed Di Natale to juggle with the ball for what seemed like an age, were just inviting Udinese to score and Rodgers might have been wondering if he’d have been better off putting on a defender as one of his big guns.
Not that Liverpool gave up; The Reds fought until the end and two minutes after the third Italian goal Suárez tested the keeper again, Udinese somehow scrambling the ball away.
Suárez did get on the scoresheet, a goal to remember from a free kick, but it doesn’t matter how good a goal is, they don’t count double and Liverpool finished the game defeated.
With injuries throughout the back four the worry is that this wasn’t far short of Liverpool’s strongest available defence. The defence that starts against Stoke on Sunday will need to be much stronger than this one but despite the loss Liverpool do need to continue to play in much the same way, certainly in terms of going forward.
Liverpool are still trying to play death by football – but need to cut down on how often they shoot themselves in the foot.