Liverpool advance to the knockout rounds of the Europa League with victory over Udinese, but being Liverpool they did their best not to make things too easy along the way.
Liverpool 1 Henderson 23'
After failing on their first chance to secure advancement against Young Boys at home, Liverpool headed to Udinese for the final match of the group stage knowing their fate was still in their hands. Win, and they would be through. Win, and whatever happened between Anzhi and Young Boys in Bern wouldn't matter. And in the end, win is exactly what they did—though being Liverpool, they made sure to make things difficult for themselves along the way.
Given the importance of the match, it was no surprise to see Brendan Rodgers field a strong starting eleven. Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger, and Lucas Leiva may have stayed home, but Luis Suarez, Joe Allen, Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson, and Jose Enrique all started in front of Pepe Reina. Jamie Carragher starting beside Skrtel and ahead of Sebastian Coates provided further confirmation that Rodgers sees the veteran as his third choice at centre half, but on the whole it was a strong side with few surprises.
Perhaps the most unexpected inclusion was Stewart Downing, though after being a liability at left back in his past two outings, Jose Enrique was charged with the defensive duties while Downing was pushed up to the wing. Also somewhat of a surprise was that despite Lucas remaining back in Liverpool for the match, Joe Allen stayed higher up the pitch to start while Nuri Sahin returned to action by slotting into the deepest role in midfield.
Unfortunately for Sahin, his return would be brief, and just twelve minutes into the match he had to be substituted for Jonjo Shelvey after taking a blow to the nose. The end result was a midfield with Shelvey in the most advanced role while Henderson and Allen shared time at the base of the triangle.
While Liverpool was trying to sort out their midfield, and despite that they needed the win while Udinese had already been eliminated, it was the hosts who had the better chances of the early, with the best coming shortly before the twenty minute mark when a looped effort forced Reina to acrobatically touch it over the bar. But then, in a reversal of the standard Liverpool narrative in recent seasons, Udinese's inability to capitalise on their superiority was followed by the visitors putting away their first good chance in the 23rd minute.
With Liverpool winning a corner, Stewart Downing lifted the ball into the penalty area to Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan shed his marker, but with his momentum carrying him way from goal his tame headed effort could only find the feet of Suso with his back to goal at the far post. The young Spaniard, though, showed exceptional awareness to lay the ball back to Jordan Henderson, who slotted home for a lead the visitors would carry into the half.
Udinese picked up the tempo of the game after the restart, attempting to put Liverpool on the back foot, but the first good chance of the second half fell to Liverpool when Suso went clear down the right. Brining back memories of the chance he failed to take against Young Boys—one that likely would have seen Liverpool already through to the knockout rounds—instead of putting Liverpool further ahead, Suso's indecisiveness in front of goal meant a wasted opportunity for the visitors to put the game to bed.
Liverpool was again given a chance to increase their lead twenty minutes into the second half only to see a brilliant reaction save by Padelli deny Jordan Henderson his second of the night. Then, minutes later, Suarez beat two defenders in the box but again Padelli was there to keep Udinese in the game, and with Young Boys up in the other Group A game and Liverpool unable to find the cushion of a second, it then meant growing nerves and an increasingly chippy affair.
Rodgers soon brought Raheem Sterling on for Suso, looking to give Liverpool a wide outlet, and shortly afterwards it was Sterling who drew a foul when he turned Giovanni Pasquale. It was the fullback's second yellow card of the night, but what should have given Liverpool the advantage they needed to see out the final twenty minutes in relative comfort instead only led to more nervy play, Liverpool's players seeming to fear a late Udinese equaliser almost as much as many of the watching fans would have.
Even with the lead and numerical advantage, Liverpool made things far more difficult than they had to be in the closing minutes, conceding possession too easily and giving away cheap free kicks that helped Udinese look dangerous at times. Despite the unconvincing finish, though, when Udinese's Antonio Di Natale blasted the ball over Reina's crossbar with the final kick of the game, the 1-0 scoreline was no more than Liverpool deserved on the run of play.
And it means that despite their struggles, and despite that at times they made it harder than it likely should have been—both against Udinese on Thursday and in the tournament in general—Liverpool are now through to the knockout rounds.