On Thursday, Group A favourites Anzhi Makhachkala came to Anfield looking to leave their mark. Instead, an unlikely strike from Stewart Downing sees the home side end the round on top of the group and with one foot in the knockout stages.
Liverpool 1 Stewart Downing 53'
Anzhi Makhachkala 0
Purchased by Russian billionaire Suleiman Kerimov is 2011, Anzhi have since then splashed on big name talent that currently sees them top of the Russian Premier League and had them leading Group A heading into Thursday night's match. Having raided the Premier League for Yuri Zhirkov and Christopher Samba, brought in Lassana Diarra from Real Madrid, and in their biggest transfer sign Samuel Eto'o away from Inter Milan, many would consider them among the favourites to take home the Europa League trophy come May.
Yet even with all the money spent on players, perhaps their biggest acquisition so far has been that of manager Guus Hiddink, who moved to take charge of the Russian club following an unsuccessful stint with Turkey's national team. And for Liverpool, the level of opposition would spur Brendan Rodgers to line up with a far stronger starting eleven than many would have expected given that Sunday sees the club cross Stanley Park to take on Everton in a league match that for most would be considered the priority.
That all meant that after seeing lineups heavy on youth and fringe players so far in the Europa League, on Thursday night Liverpool started with Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez both on the pitch along with Nuri Sahin and Jonjo Shelvey, while the starting back four against Anzhi of Andre Wisdom, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, and Glen Johnson has been Rodgers' go-to unit since Martin Kelly went down to injury earlier in the season.
With Reina still working his way back from a minor hamstring injury suffered while on international duty and youngsters Suso and Raheem Sterling starting on the bench, only goalkeeper Brad Jones and wingers Stewart Downing and Oussama Assaidi looked anything like b-team inclusions in the starting eleven—and when everything was said and done they would each be integral to the hosts eking out a hard-fought 1-0 victory that sees Liverpool leapfrog over both Anzhi and Udinese to end the day atop the group.
Liverpool set up looking to hold possession from the start while Anzhi sought to hit on the counter, but in the early going neither approach led to much for either side. Liverpool held possession for long spells but did little of note in the attacking third; Anzhi's attempted counters mostly broke down before they began and caused Liverpool's defence little worry; and in the end it took nearly twenty minutes before either side managed a truly dangerous chance on goal.
Oddly enough, that first moment of genuine attacking threat for either side came when Liverpool saw a chance to counter, with Johnson playing the ball into the vacated left channel for Assaidi to sprint onto. The Moroccan international centred to Suarez, but the striker could only manage a tame effort that went straight into the arms of Vladimir Gabulov. With Anzhi continuing to play tentatively with the ball, the chance emboldened the home side to push higher up the pitch, and much of the rest of the first half saw Liverpool moving their possession game into the final third and with a handful of quality chances developing thanks largely to the play of Johnson and Assaidi on the left.
Meanwhile, Stewart Downing looked surprisingly lively on the right, leaving most of Liverpool's attacks to break down more centrally thanks to Steven Gerrard, with a terrible first half that saw Liverpool's captain put in arguably the worst performance on the pitch. Thankfully for Gerrard, his day improved as the game wore on and he pushed up into more of a supporting role while Jonjo Shelvey dropped off a bit, but for much of the first half at least it was Gerrard who was culpable more often than not for Liverpool's attacks breaking down thanks to overly ambitious runs that ended in his being disposed and frequent passes straight to the opposition.
The end result was that as in so many of Liverpool's games over the past few seasons, it was a first half marked by lots of possession and a handful of decent scoring chances—with the best a one-two worked by Suarez and Johnson in the 35th minute that saw the fullback clear on goal only for him to whiff on the shot as an Anzhi defender launched a wild, last-ditch tackle attempt that unsighted him. And as has too often been the case, it was a half where despite the chances and possession the hosts went into the break with noting to show for their at times dominating play.
The second half started with Glen Johnson brought off for Raheem Sterling, as though the fullback had at times been Liverpool's most dangerous player in the opening period, he had clearly begun to tire towards the end of the first half. With Rodgers keeping half an eye on Everton on the weekend despite the strong starting eleven, it meant a move to left back for Stewart Downing as Sterling took up his position on the right wing. And despite the changes, Liverpool continued right where they left off in the first half, dominating possession and creating chances but unable to convert.
Then, Fifty-three minutes in, Stewart Downing appeared to surprise himself as much as he surprised everyone watching at home and in the stands when he did his best impression of Glen Johnson, cutting inside from his fullback position while Assaidi stayed wide, curling an effort past the keeper and into the side netting with his weaker foot. Downing may have a long way to go yet to redeem himself in the eyes of many Liverpool fans and to work his way into the conversation when it comes to starting minutes in the league, but for an oft-derided player it was a sublime moment that stands as an early favourite for Liverpool's goal of the season.
Immediately following the goal, Jonjo Shelvey gave Suarez the ball in space twenty-five yards out from goal and with Anzhi scrambling to compose themselves. His effort, also with his weaker foot, skimmed just wide of the post. Liverpool had been the better side for most of the match, but following Downing's goal it felt as though the floodgates were bound to open. Unfortunately for the hosts, though, they never did, and despite being the better side throughout, Liverpool were unable to find a second goal to really put the game to bed.
Before the final whistle, that inability to take their chances meant a nervy final fifteen minutes for the hosts as Anzhi pushed for an equaliser and the match became wide open. One of Brendan Rodgers' key talking points heading into the season was the idea of resting with the ball; of defending with possession. From that standpoint, the end of Thursday night's match will not have thrilled the manager despite that his team came out on top in the end, as Liverpool seemed far too happy to trade chances with an increasingly desperate Anzhi.
In the end, though, Liverpool held, thanks in large part to a superlative performance from Andre Wisdom at right back while in the middle Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel were at their best and goalkeeper Brad Jones did what was needed when called upon. Moving up the pitch it was less consistently positive for Liverpool, but Oussama Assaidi at least made a strong case for seeing more time in the league over the coming weeks. And of course there was Stewart Downing, whose one moment of brilliance deserves praise even if what it may mean in the longer term is almost impossible to say.