Despite dominating their opponents at times, Liverpool return from Russia with a two goal deficit that makes advancing further in the Europa League nearly impossible and could see them miss out on Europe entirely next season.
Zenit 2 Hulk 70', Semak 72'
Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge were cup-tied, their former clubs both in the Europa League knockout stages, but that didn't stop Brendan Rodgers running out very strong eleven as Liverpool headed to St. Petersburg to kick off the round of 32. Aside from a night off for Lucas and Daniel Agger, in fact, it might have been the strongest starting eleven available to the Liverpool manager. As such, the end result can only be classed a crushing disappointment.
The strong lineup was a signal Rodgers was approaching Thursday night's match on the chilly, chewed up Petrovski Stadium turf seeking the win rather than looking to stymie Zenit with an eye to next week's return leg at Anfield and a league match against Swansea on Sunday. And for a time, it looked like his ambitious selection might put Liverpool in control of the tie. Yet in the end, missed chances and the inevitable sucker punch by their opponents spoiled those hopes.
Both sides came out firing, and Pepe Reina was forced to make a strong stop in the first minute to deny a Zenit goal off a well-worked corner while Liverpool's defenders stood as statues. Seconds later, Liverpool showed they could create chances just as well as Zenit when Glen Johnson played Luis Suarez clear. Some fancy footwork took him beyond the last defender, but his shot slipped just past the far post.
The chances kept coming. Four minutes in, Hulk was given space and fired a hard shot that was headed for the bottom corner. Reina was again equal to the task, palming the effort just wide. Unfortunately for Joe Allen—who deserved much of the blame for the room Hulk found—it was a sequence that would mark the start of an evening to forget as the midfielder looked a step off the pace and frequently drifted away from his defensive zone.
It didn't take long, though, for Liverpool to work another golden opportunity of their own when Nicolas Lombaerts passed the ball straight to Suarez. The striker was soon clear on goal, and Malafeev charged. Rather than looking to chip the keeper, Suarez touched the ball around him. But his touch was heavy and it gave Zenit's defence the chance to recover.
Late on in the half, Suarez missed another fantastic opportunity to score when Raheem Sterling put it on a plate for him at the edge of the goalkeeper's six-yard box. Somehow, with the entire goal gaping in front of him, Suarez managed to bobble the shot wide. The whistle blew with Liverpool having had the better chances though Zenit had edged the run of play, and though the even scoreline was likely fair, it was hard to understand how neither side had scored.
Liverpool were by far the stronger of the two sides when the second half kicked off, and ten minutes in the visitors had yet another chance to go ahead when Glen Johnson split the defence and nearly scored after carrying the ball from deep in his own end. Meanwhile on the other side of the pitch, Hulk was regularly outmuscled by Jose Enrique as both of Liverpool's fullbacks answered doubts raised by poor performances against West Brom.
Then, just shy of 60 minutes, Suarez curled the ball just wide of the post from the edge of the box after a Liverpool counter carved Zenit apart, and though Liverpool continued to take the game to the hosts, there was a growing sense the visitors would pay for their profligacy. And so in the end it seemed almost inevitable when Zenit were the ones who finally broke the deadlock in the 69th minute thanks to Liverpool's defence and midfield again giving Hulk too much space in the middle of the park.
Hulk's night had until then been a largely indifferent one, but this time around the Brazilian's hammer-blow from 25 yards flew past Reina and into the top corner. Two minutes later, Sergi Semak picked up a low cross at the back post and made it 2-0. Liverpool's defence had again been caught napping, and a match they should have been ahead in was suddenly heading towards a final scoreline that would nearly put the tie out of reach.
Liverpool needed to push for a goal without conceding again to keep any realistic hope of advancing alive, a situation that prompted Rodgers to bring Lucas off the bench to free up the midfielders and fullbacks to join the attack, but in the end it wasn't enough to change the scoreline. Despite a strong—at times even dominating—night, Liverpool now head home two goals down and without an away goal. It's a scoreline that all but ends their hopes of silverware this season. It also all but rules out a return to any European competition next year.
It's too early to call the Brendan Rodgers era a failure, but sitting in ninth with the season more than two-thirds done, on the edge of falling out of their final cup competition, and with Europe slipping out of reach it's not unfair to suggest that where the club is today isn't where anybody hoped it would be when the season started.