On a night where victory always seemed unlikely for Liverpool, it will be the manner of conceding and a number of poor individual performances that sting more than the loss itself.
Anzhi Makhachkala 1 Traore 45'+1'
With Chelsea waiting on Sunday and a dangerously thin squad, Liverpool's starting eleven on Thursday against Anzhi Makhachkala was always going to be heavy on youth players with a sprinkling of out of favour veterans. Even with that in mind, a senior debut for Conor Coady was a touch unexpected, as was Adam Morgan leading the line after Samed Yesil had previously been preferred by Brendan Rodgers amongst Liverpool's youth strikers.
Perhaps more surprising was that after failing to impress in the League Cup against Swansea and earning Rodgers' ire in the process, Joe Cole was given yet another last chance to impress on his 31st birthday while the likes of Oussama Assaidi, Dani Pacheco, and Suso started on the bench. No matter the who started, though, it was always going to be a game where Liverpool sought to contain rather than attack, and with the visitors predictably looking to stifle the more experienced Russian side things kicked off in a predictably cautious manner.
Liverpool didn't look especially dangerous, but neither did Anzhi, with the hosts seeing little of the ball and doing little when they did get it. The football on display may not have been especially entertaining, but it will have been a situation that would have suited Brendan Rodgers just fine. And it all could have ended much differently if Liverpool had converted their first—and perhaps best—chance of the match when Adam Morgan played Henderson in after twenty minutes. Unfortunately for the visitors, Henderson looked to cut the ball back rather than take the chance on himself and Joao Carlos was there to clear the danger.
Anzhi sought to change the complexion of the game by bringing winger Mehdi Gonzalez on for holding midfielder Odil Ahmedov after just 29 minutes, and it was a move that provided a burst of life for the until then stagnant hosts. Liverpool soon found their feet again, but Anzhi remained more threatening than they had been to start the match and eventually had their first good chance when Samuel Eto'o forced Brad Jones to palm away a shot drilled towards the top corner of the goal from ten yards out.
Then, right before the referee prepared to blow the whistle for halftime after a minute of extra time, the sucker punch came for Liverpool, undoing a solid if uneventful half of football for the youthful visitors. Lacina Traore received the ball with his back to Sebastian Coates, and with an absolutely brilliant first-touch backheel flick to himself he popped the ball over the defender, turned, and charged clear on goal. Jones left his line to close down the striker, and with a second perfect touch Traore chipped the ball cooly over the Liverpool keeper.
Coates and Carragher will share the bulk of the blame, with Coates primarily culpable for allowing Traore to beat him with a schoolyard trick and Carragher painfully slow to react to the danger. Meanwhile, given the manner in which the ball was bouncing as Traore headed towards goal, Jones' decision to charge out at the striker will also come in for scrutiny as the goalkeeper's newfound aggressiveness on this occasion became his undoing.
The second half kicked off a carbon copy of the first, with both sides tentative and not much of note happening either way as spells of possession intermingled with half-hearted attacks. Bringing Suso and Dani Pacheco on for Morgan and Coady just after the 60 minute mark signalled Brendan Rodgers' first attempt to inject some life into the game, and Suso in particular did help to liven things up for Liverpool.
Without a striker on the pitch, though, the visitors were always going to have a hard time converting any chances that fell their way into goals, and sure enough there was little in the final thirty minutes that suggested an equaliser was imminent. In fact, the best chances as the game wound down all seemed to fall Anzhi's way as Liverpool pushed ineffectively up the pitch in search of a tying goal.
First, Brad Jones kept Liverpool in the game in the 75th minute, showing strong hands once again to stop a Traore header from point-blank range. Then, minutes later, Traore broke clear on goal but fired wide of the post. In the meantime, Rodgers had brought on Assaidi for Cole with his last throw of the dice, but after looking so lively against the Russians at Anfield, his short cameo on this night will have done little to force his name into the conversation for Sunday's league match.
Given the thin squad and a long trip to Russia, a loss was always a strong possibility for Liverpool. With that in mind, then, the real disappointment for the visitors will come from the manner Anzhi scored as well as in the complete failure of the few included senior players to make a case for more regular action.
Cole and Downing in particular were invisible, and while willing, Carragher's lack of pace remains an ever-growing concern as the veteran defender's physical decline becomes increasingly difficult to ignore. Meanwhile, Jordan Henderson's nervy night sees him clearly bereft of confidence and as far as he's ever been from being a first team contributor for Brendan Rodgers, and those hoping to see the young midfielder exert himself when given the chance in his preferred position will come away disappointed.
Liverpool remain competitive in a congested Group A, though, only a point back of leaders Anzhi and with a home game against BSC Young Boys and a trip to Udinese to come. A victory in Russia, as unlikely as it always seemed to be, would have put Liverpool all but through to the knockout rounds, but a loss is hardly the end of their European hopes. If anything, it seems far more likely to signal the end of any hope for the likes of Downing and Cole at Liverpool, yet for all the times the costly veterans have had what seemed last chances to impress it would hardly surprise if they were still given one or ten more.