Why Liverpool-Zenit tie is far from over despite important first leg win for Russians

Goal.com's Harsh Shah presents his take on how Liverpool could clinch this battle despite having Sturridge and Coutinho cup-tied and a 2-0 first leg deficit to overturn...

Liverpool Football Club has a huge task at hand tonight. The once fearsome and regular contenders for top European honours now find themselves on the verge of elimination in the continent’s B-competition, the Europa League. Russia's Zenit St. Petersburg hold the advantage after a 2-0 reversal in the first leg, with the Brazilian Hulk and midfielder Sergei Semak converting for the home side.

Despite the deficit, the Anfield side boast the reputation of producing many magical European nights at the stadium from the past to derive hope and encouragement from. A lot of examples could be cited, with the intense 2007 Champions League semi-final victory over Chelsea on penalties at this venue one among them. Most recently, Steven Gerrard plundered a second half hat-trick to edge out Italian side Napoli in the 2010 Europa League season, after his side were trailing 1-0 at half time and on the brink of ouster at the group stage.

Most of Liverpool’s players in the run-up to the big match have stated the importance of the crowd getting behind them. Steven Gerrard along with the likes of Martin Skrtel and Pepe Reina have issued statements, asking for the supporters in the KOP, Liverpool’s 12th man, to be in full voice, and make sure a shiver runs down the spine of every single Zenit player on the night. Anfield needs to be absolutely rocking so as to give the whole arena an air of invincibility for the home side, inspiring them to wreak havoc in the opposition camp and mark a memorable victory which erases the first leg deficit and assures them progress in the competition.

The KOP needs to live up to its lore of inducing fear into opponent  hearts

Outstanding crowd support will not be enough though for the home side. The players on the field will have to match the roars of the Kop and break down a talented and tough side from St. Petersburg. To add to the two goals conceded in the first leg, another issue that will definitely bother the Anfield faithful is the absence of the outstandingly consistent Daniel Sturridge and newbie Philippe Coutinho as both of them are cup-tied. The former has been in red hot form since the turn of the year, notching up 5 goals in 7 games already for the Reds since joining in the winter transfer period.

In games without the Englishman, Liverpool have looked toothless, with the last two 2-0 defeats to West Brom and Zenit last week proof of the lack in depth in attack without Sturridge. With him playing alongside Gerrard and Suarez, Liverpool have been literally unplayable on most occasions.

Keeping only Sturridge under the microscope (since Coutinho is just a game old), barring the loss to West Brom, Liverpool have won their last two home games 5-0 each against Norwich and Swansea City, with the forward being instrumental on both these victories. In the 2-2 draws away at Arsenal and Manchester City, Sturridge stood out as Liverpool’s best player, outshining even the world-class Luis Suarez in the process.

Having Coutinho make his first appearance for the Reds in Europe after an amazing full league debut against Swansea would have certainly buoyed the home fans' moods, but alas he too is cup-tied.

It's a definite thing both the attack-minded youngsters will be sorely missed against Zenit, but then that is something that the home side will have to look beyond and instead divert their focus on the tie and the challenge at hand.

It will truly be an uphill struggle, but not something out of reach for the five-time European champions. Liverpool have already beaten the other Russian heavyweights in the competition, Anzhi Makhachkala 1-0 at Anfield, courtesy a long-range Stewart Downing stunner.

This is a sight that needs to be avoided at any cost for Liverpool to progress


Now let’s get down to how Liverpool can clinch this tricky tie. Anyone would be a fool to say that the fixture is done and dusted when the second leg is to be played at Anfield. So first and foremost, the side trailing needs to take a long, hard look at the mistakes they made in the first leg. Brendan Rodgers’ plans will have to hover around three major aspects so as to mastermind a win that would go down as one of their best in the club's glittering European history!


Aspect One:
  • Conversion of chances. Suarez in particular was found guilty of spurning clear-cut opportunities in the first leg prior to Zenit taking the lead. The Russians made them pay for those missed chances with aplomb. Hence the first goal tonight will be decisive and Liverpool need to make sure it is they who score it.
  • And for that to happen they will have to go all guns blazing in the first 15-to-20 minutes and make sure they account for all their penetration with a goal. There is no other choice for the Scousers; they get a chance, they need to take it; for if it goes begging, it will come back to haunt them. And if Zenit were to score first, then the game might well be out of Liverpool’s reach.
  • The players will have to keep their heads up for any chances, be unselfish and not go for glory if they have the better option of passing to a teammate. Sensible play needs to ride over the ambition for individual glory so as to ensure progress into the next stage for Liverpool.


Aspect Two:

  • No room for error in defense. Lapses in concentration have proven costly for Liverpool, especially in the Europa League. Two goals conceded in as many minutes does not show defensive solidity, with some clumsy goalkeeping in recent times contributing to their poor results. In the group stage against Udinese at Anfield, they lost concentration following the half-time break after a cruising first half, and ended up losing the game 3-2.
  • Liverpool’s adamancy in passing the ball out of defense has cost them dearly at times, with the Welshman Joe Allen not too confident on the ball in central midfield. Losing possession in midfield led to Hulk’s opening goal and a mishap of a clearance from Skrtel led to Semak’s strike two minutes later. Both goals could have been easily avoided. With Skrtel a huge doubt for this one, Jamie Carragher will have to partner Daniel Agger, bringing all his years’ European football experience into play and make sure they shadow Hulk and Alexander Kerzhakov at all times. If the forwards step back to the midfield to mix up play, the midfielders need to make life difficult and put in their best shift possible.
  • Liverpool needs to win the second ball and make sure one player does not spend too much time on the ball. Lucas Leiva should play instead of Joe Allen, as the Brazilian is more capable of keeping the likes of Alex Witsel and Roman Shirokov contained in the Zenit midfield. This is the opportunity for stop-start players like Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing to prove their mettle and come to the fore in a red shirt. Pepe Reina has to be on his toes at all times so that no shots sneak past him and worsen the situation for his side. In short, all the players will have to put in more than 100% if they are to beat this stellar Zenit side.


Aspect Three:

  • Liverpool has to play Steven Gerrard down the middle in an advanced role, preferably in the hole behind Suarez so as to not miss Sturridge and in the process get the job done. When the English maestro drops back into a deeper role, it leaves the Uruguayan completely isolated upfront, resulting in the latter having to drop back to get the ball, which is certainly unwanted for at this stage in the tie.
  • With Gerrard playing in a forward role, Liverpool stands a higher chance of scoring, with the link up play between the two being absolutely fantastic. His performance will be even more important than that of Suarez, as the former will be the one pulling strings in midfield.
  • And with able support from Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson bombing down the flanks, the Reds can seriously torment Anyukov & Co at the back, leaving them at sixes and sevens with the right tactics and game-play.

Placing the bigger picture in perspective, progressing from such a tight spot could kick-start whatever remains of Liverpool’s season. It could provide much needed impetus to their league form, injecting belief in their systems that they can win even when they are pushed to the corner. Failure to progress would all but finish their season off, with no incentive left whatsoever to motivate them to do well in the remaining fixtures. The Europa League is their last hope for glory this campaign.

So with a chilly night in store at Anfield, it will be up to the home side to make it as daunting a trip as possible for the advantageous Russians. With the right mindset, attitude and technique, we might just see Liverpool cross the line to the next stage of the Europa League, owing to a magnificent comeback and yet another magical European night to remember.

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