EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 23: Mehdl Taouil of Hearts competes with Raheem Sterling of Liverpool during the Hearts v Liverpool UEFA Europa League play-off round match at Tynecastle Stadium, Edinburgh on August 23, 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Facing off against weaker competition after a difficult start to the Premier League season, the question for Liverpool was whether a squad largely made up of youth and fringe players could rebound to show something like the form the club hit against FC Gomel earlier in the Europa League or if the struggles seen in the league opener would carry over. Though in the end Liverpool won, and though there were a handful of promising performances, for the most part it was an exceptionally poor showing for Liverpool, and Hearts will feel hard done by to head into the second leg at Anfield down an away goal.
Liverpool 1 Webster (OG) 78'
Liverpool's most encouraging performance came from Raheem Sterling, who looked promising in his first competitive start after ending the pre-season one of the club's best players, and Pepe Reina was strong when called on. Beyond that, however, there weren't many positives to take from Thursday's largely dire Europa League match, with the midfield in particular being thoroughly outplayed by their Scottish counterparts.
In that midfield, Charlie Adam started alongside Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey despite rumours he had been told to find a new club or face a season spent on the bench. Meanwhile, despite struggling to adjust to the role last season, Jordan Henderson found himself once again playing on the right of attack—and looking almost entirely anonymous because of it.
If the intent was to put Adam in the proverbial shop window, attempting to attract the interest of any potential suitor for the midfielder, the result will have to be considered an unmitigated failure. Adam was at his absolute worst, mistiming tackles, firing Hollywood balls off target, delivering poor corners, and with an exceptionally poor first touch that often turned the ball straight over to Hearts. About the best that could be said for Adam, in fact, was that with Jonjo Shelvey having his worst performance for Liverpool and Jay Spearing once again proving to be exceptionally poor cover for Lucas Leiva, it remains an open question as to which of Liverpool's midfielder's was worst on the day.
It wasn't only in midfield where Liverpool looked poor—and the poorer of the two sides—as outside of Daniel Agger the club's defence often looked overmatched. With Martin Skrtel left out the squad in preparation for Sunday's league game against Manchester City, there was speculation beforehand as to whether Sebastian Coates would be given his first start under Brendan Rodgers or if veteran Jamie Carragher would continue to hold onto his role as the club's third centre back. The answer was that the status quo would continue, and Carragher responded to his manager's faith by completely failing to deal with Hearts' David Templeton or John Sutton.
David Templeton in particular repeatedly beat Carragher for pace and power on the way to a man of the match performance despite his side's eventual loss, and Spearing's lack of positional discipline didn't help matters as Hearts repeatedly targeted Liverpool's weak links. Lucas and Allen might be expected to start on the weekend against Manchester City, but if Brendan Rodgers is a sensible man he will be having nightmares between now and then when he imagines the likes of David Silva and Mario Balotelli running at the Jamie Carragher who lined up against Hearts tonight.
Starting with an under-hit Carragher backpass six minutes in that required an alert Reina to charge out of his area to clear ahead of an onrushing attacker, the first half belonged almost entirely to Hearts. Four minutes later, a series of slick passes left Liverpool's defence and midfield scrambling, and again Reina was called on to keep things level as a long shot heading for the top corner had to be tipped over the bar.
Liverpool's only decent chance came late in the half when Fabio Borini was sent clear on goal by Raheem Sterling. Unfortunately for Liverpool the striker could only hit the post, carrying over the club's finishing woes from 2011-12 into the current season. It meant the clubs headed into the break level, and it was a 0-0 draw that unquestionably flattered Liverpool—and it was followed by a second half where Hearts again looked the more likely side.
Stewart Downing replaced Jack Robinson at left back just after 60 minutes as Brendan Rodgers attempted to change the complexion of the match, and shortly afterwards Jay Spearing made way for Joe Allen. Downing's arrival didn't do much to change the flow of the game, but Allen's made Liverpool's midfield noticeably more composed and for the first time allowed the visitors to show signs they might be able to dictate the play.
At best it could be said that Liverpool began to play Hearts level in the middle of the park, but after being outplayed for 68 minutes even that was a welcome improvement, and ten minutes
after his arrival it was Allen who sent later that improved midfield play sent Martin Kelly clear down the right, leading to the only goal of the night. With Kelly in acres of space, the fullback had time to measure and whip in a dangerous cross that was inches from being turned into a Fabio Borini goal. However, while the Liverpool striker couldn't quite reach it, Hearts' captain Andy Webster couldn't get his feet out of the way at the back post, putting Liverpool up a largely undeserved goal against the run of play on the night.
It wasn't quite game over, though, as Hearts pushed back and a late Carragher error nearly gifted them a goal of their own, but in the end—and despite being outplayed for much of the match—Liverpool escaped with victory, taking the lead and a valuable away goal back to Anfield for the return leg next Thursday.