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It was one more last chance for Stewart Downing to impress—and for a half he seemed well on the way to doing just that. For a half, in fact, all of Liverpool's kids and squad players dominated a strong Udinese side. Unfortunately for the hosts a poor second half start and wild finish was their undoing in a game that went into the break looking won but instead ended in a tough loss.
Liverpool 2 Shelvey 23', Suarez 75
Udinese 3 Di Natale 46', Coates 70' (OG), Pasquale 72'
Along with a chance to impress up front for Downing, it was a return to action for Jonjo Shlevey, and after an opening fifteen minutes that saw the two sides trading possession and the occasional chance it would be Shelvey and Downing who combined for the opening goal of the night. Before they could make their mark on the match, though, Liverpool would have to overcome an at times shaky start as the hosts took their time to settle down—an early theme for Liverpool's kids in the European and domestic cup competitions.
On the left, Oussama Assaidi was predictably eager to run at defenders, but his attacking focus at times left Jack Robinson isolated at the back against Davide Faraoni and Roberto Pereyra. Meanwhile on the right, Glen Johnson at times struggled with his positioning when Liverpool had the ball, seemingly either uncertain on the right after spending the first month of the season almost exclusively on the left or uncertain over his role with Downing as he moved up the pitch.
Meanwhile in midfield, the trio of Allen, Henderson, and Shelvey appeared nervous at first, with Allen in particular seeming oddly uncomfortable on the ball in the early going. It meant a far from convincing opening period for Liverpool, but with Udinese similarly unconvincing nothing much came of the uncertain play—at least until the eighth minute, when the visitors began to find their feet and control the match.
It culminated in a 15th minute chance that saw Riena dive to save a redirected free kick heading for the bottom of the goal. It was a brilliant, instinctive stop from the Spaniard, and perhaps the struggling goalkeeper's best of the season. It also served to wake Liverpool up, as after that point Udinese saw almost none of the ball and created nothing at all on the few occasions they were able to get a touch in.
The pressure led to a Liverpool marker when Shelvey played a long one-two with Stewart Downing, sending the ball wide to the winger and driving towards goal for the crossed return. With Borini's smart run dragging the defenders across goal and away from Shelvey, the unmarked midfielder headed home past Brkic from the penalty spot. Then he followed up his goal with a two-footed, studs-up tackle of a celebration that the corner flag just managed to get out of the way of.
Shlevey's goal came in the midst of Liverpool's most dominant stretch of play under Brendan Rodgers, and when the half ended the hosts had at least 72% possession overall—and over 80% following Reina's save in the 15th minute. Despite looking dangerous, though, and despite that they did push hard for a second goal, the half ended with the score still 1-0, albeit an exceptionally convincing 1-0.
It only took thirty-two seconds of the second for all of Liverpool's good work from the first half to be undone when Glen Johnson miscontrolled a ball that had ping-ponged between the two sides in midfield from kickoff. Andrea Lazzari had been introduced for an ineffective Pablo Armero at the half for Udinese, and it paid instant dividends when the Colombian midfielder pounced on Johnson's poor touch, handing the ball off and racing towards goal where he received the return pass and squared to Antonio Di Natale.
The veteran striker made no mistake, driving the ball past Reina's outstretched hand, drawing the visitors level, and handing them the momentum despite that they had ended the first looking completely lost. And for the next twenty minutes they didn't give Liverpool an inch, pinning back the hosts and leaving a side that had appeared dominant before the break looking over their heads.
Sixty-five minutes in, Brendan Rodgers tried to get Liverpool back in the game by bringing on Luis Suarez for Oussama Assaidi and Steven Gerrard for Jordan Henderson. While both players brought on seemed good shouts to impact the game, and though Assaidi hadn't looked nearly as good as in his Europa debut against Young Boys, the removal of Henderson was something of a head-scratcher seeing as the midfielder had been Liverpool's only player deserving of any kind of credit during the stretch when Udinese had been in the ascendency.
Moreover, it had been Henderson along with an increasingly settled Joe Allen who had been most responsible for Liverpool's strong first half play, while Jonjo Shelvey and Stewart Downing—both of whom had had strong first halves—had likely dropped off more than anyone else in the second yet remained on the pitch. Still, it can't be argued that the changes did drag Liverpool back into the game offensively, and the home side likely should have been back on top in the 69th minute when the ball fell to Suarez off a free kick. Unfortunately for Liverpool, his driven effort was inadvertently cleared off the line by Shelvey as he tried to direct the ball into the goal from a yard out.
Then Liverpool's bad luck in front of goal carried right back down to the other end of the pitch, as Udinese immediately drove back down the field and earned a free kick of their own. When the ensuing crossed ball took a critical deflection off Coates' head it sailed past Reina, giving the visitors a lead that didn't seem deserved on the whole even if they'd had a clear edge for much of the second half.
Two minutes later they had their third when Pasquale drilled it past Reina after Di Natale embarrassed Carragher in the penalty area, controlling the ball with his back to the defender and waiting for his teammates to catch up before handing it off for the too-easy goal. Liverpool, to their credit, didn't crumble, and following the restart Fabio Borini drew a free kick at the edge of the Udinese area that Suarez curled into the top corner to pull Liverpool back into the game.
It was as close as Liverpool got. Five minutes later, Rodgers' last throw of the dice saw Raheem Sterling introduced for Fabio Borini, and though Liverpool pressed hard in the final ten minutes plus stoppage time—with Sterling, Suarez, Robinson, and Downing all seeing chances around the box—in the end it would come to nothing.
With a match so wildly divergent in parts, with an uncertain start giving way to Liverpool dominance giving way to a resurgent Udinese giving way to a wild, back-and-forth finish, it can be difficult to derive much in the way of an overarching meaning to the day. Liverpool probably did deserve more based on the run of play—maybe even deserved all three points once again in a season that has seen Rodgers' side deserve far more than the results have provided. Yet for long stretches Liverpool also appeared lost, uncertain, and deserving of very little.
Still, if the match can be said to have had one key, defining moment, it likely has to be the decision to remove Jordan Henderson despite that he had been Liverpool's best player for sixty-five minutes. He and Allen had bossed the midfield for Liverpool for much of the game, and when many of his teammates had gone missing he was the one who managed to remain calm and composed.
Introducing Gerrard to the mix along with Suarez may have been the right call, but with Shelvey increasingly uneven as the second half wore along and Downing quickly reverting to the ineffective form that has marked his Liverpool career, there seemed better options for Rodgers to take. In a tough group and with the club focusing the bulk of their efforts on the league, that could be the choice that ends up putting Liverpool out of the Europa League when all the results are tallied.