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Russians upended by deadly Downing strike

Friday, 26 October 2012 - 3:44pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Stewart Downing may feel he needs a revival worthy of Lazarus to save his Liverpool career, but he kept his club's European hopes alive.

Liverpool 1 Anzhi Makhachkala 0

Stewart Downing may feel he needs a revival worthy of Lazarus to save his Liverpool career, but he kept his club's European hopes alive.

Thrust into an emergency left-back role in the second half of the Europa League tie with Anzhi Makhachkala, the erstwhile England international delivered his fourth Liverpool goal in 16 unfulfilling months, justifying his manager's decision to play Russian roulette at the start of the toughest week of his Anfield reign so far.

After starting the evening clinging on in pursuit of qualification to the knockout stage, Liverpool now top their group and are in strong position.

It would appear the Europa League assumed greater importance at some point between the final whistle of the defeat against Udinese and on Thursday's kick-off against the Russians.

Having spared the energy of his key men in previous fixtures of the competition, Brendan Rodgers took on the role of gambler 72 hours before the Merseyside derby.

His assessment was that it made more sense to try to retain his club's interest in this competition on home soil, thus avoiding taking Gerrard and Suarez to Moscow in a fortnight - three days before a trip to Chelsea.

With Everton on the immediate horizon, that is a calculation that will only be fully assessed on Sunday afternoon. There will be little sympathy from Liverpool supporters if tired limbs or any nagging injuries sustained here are blamed for a poor performance at Goodison Park.

What Rodgers' selection truly demonstrated was the lack of depth in his squad, the manager unwilling to sacrifice European hopes before the grottos open. It may have come as some relief that the ponderous nature of the opening stages ensured few calories were being burned.

Anzhi's manager Guus Hiddink, approached for the Liverpool job before Roy Hodgson's appointment two years ago, had set up his side to stifle and frustrate.

They may have been billed as the Russian Premier League's answer to Chelsea and Manchester City, but their negative approach was a disappointment. Samuel Eto'o, rather like Suarez, too often felt compelled to take on defenders alone but he was barely supported by his midfield.

Liverpool's determination to paint pretty pictures in midfield with little to penetrate a packed defence meant the necessary zip was missing to elevate the first half above the tedious.

The most significant Liverpool threat was offered by those unlikely to start at the weekend. As well as Downing, Oussama Assaidi was the focal point, feeding Suarez and Glen Johnson for early strikes which failed to trouble keeper Vladimir Gabulov.

The Morrocan winger could have opened the scoring on 28 minutes but shot tamely at Gabulov, but all the home pressure was originating from the left wing. Johnson - who started at left-back - was maintaining his exceptional form in support.

The England defender thought he had won a penalty on 35 minutes, accepting Suarez's return pass and feeling a tug on the jersey. In truth, it looked as though he had lost balance.

Johnson's premature exit after 45 minutes due to injury was the most significant event of the first half, not least because his exit forced Downing into the defensive role from which he surprisingly opened the scoring.

Liverpool duly found their momentum kicking towards the Kop at the start of the second half, Martin Skrtel and Gerrard both going close before Downing's brilliant strike, cutting in from the left to hit sweetly with his right foot beyond Gabulov.

Shelvey almost added a second as Liverpool began to dominate, but familiar sloppiness at the back almost gifted Eto'o an equaliser on 70 minutes. Downing's daft pass put Skrtel in trouble, the African Player of the Year pounced, but his shot was straight at Jones.

The hunt for a second inevitably led to anxiety at the other end, the visitors, like most who come to Anfield, finding encouragement from Liverpool's failure to kill the game early. Assaidi thought he had earned a match-settling penalty on 75 minutes when he was tripped by Arseni Logashov. In the frantic appeals for a penalty, Suarez picked up a booking prompting further chants from the Kop about organising a party when the officials give the Uruguayan a decision.

For a change, the real adulation was reserved for Downing. "Stewart Downing, he scores when he wants," was the cry from the home fans, a reference to a less than prolific strike-rate. It is unlikely to be enough to earn him a starting place at Goodison, but further opportunities in a new role surely beckon.

 


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