Brendan Rodgers' side wasted a host of chances before the England winger won the match with a superb effort, giving his side a boost ahead of Sunday's Merseyside derby
The much-derided winger’s 20-yard effort proved enough for the Reds, who wasted a host of chances to put the game out of sight.
Daniel Agger had a goal disallowed for heading the ball out of goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov’s hand, after Jonjo Shelvey had wasted a fantastic chance to give Liverpool the lead, before Downing’s goal settled the match and moves the Reds to the top of Group A.
Brendan Rodgers named a strong Liverpool line-up despite the looming prospect of the Merseyside derby at the weekend. Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez both started at Anfield, while Oussama Assaidi and Downing also got the nod.
Brad Jones started in goal for the Reds, with Pepe Reina still ruled out with a hamstring injury, while Shelvey also earned a start ahead of Joe Allen.
Anzhi Makhachkala named Cameroon legend Samuel Eto’o in the starting line-up, while former Blackburn defender Chris Samba started in defence for the visitors, but manager Guus Hiddink was without ex-Arsenal and Chelsea midfielder Lassana Diarra, who was ruled out with a knee injury.
The home side dominated the early possession, with Suarez looking particularly lively, but it took until the 12th minute for Liverpool to fashion a chance. Assaidi pulled back to Suarez on the edge of the box, but the Uruguay international’s effort tamely rolled into the arms of Gabulov.
Assaidi was involved once again as Liverpool created another decent chance after a spell of Anzhi possession. The 24-year-old darted into the box and found Johnson, who drove a left-footed strike towards goal which the goalkeeper could only parry away.
Shelvey had a glorious chance to put the hosts in front minutes later, as Suarez broke free of the Anzhi defence and squared to the 20-year-old, but the midfielder blasted his first-time effort well clear of the bar.
And the second half started with yet more Liverpool possession. Martin Skrtel won the ball in an advanced position and drove a dangerous half-volley towards goal, which Gabulov eventually gathered at the second time of asking.
The hosts created another fantastic chance moments later but failed to capitalise once more. Shelvey broke free and lifted the ball into the area towards an unmarked Gerrard, but the cross was just behind the Reds skipper who couldn’t quite direct his header on target.
But on 53 minutes the deadlock was finally broken in spectacular fashion. Shelvey spread the ball out to Downing, who chose to cut in side and then unleashed a rasping right-footed effort from 20 yards which flew into the far corner.
Suarez nearly doubled the lead within 60 seconds with a fizzing left-footed strike from 25 yards which ricocheted off the stanchion and into the side netting, before Yuri Zhirkov was forced to make a last-ditch challenge with Shelvey bearing down on goal.
Some lackadaisical passing in defence led to a chance for the visitors, but Samuel Eto’o’s strike on the turn was easily dealt with by Jones, who had a very quiet evening in the Liverpool goal.
Assaidi had a penalty shout turned down before Mbark Boussoufa fired a deflected effort just wide of Jones’ near post. Agger then had a goal disallowed after heading the ball out of Gabulov’s hand and firing into the net; a move which also earned the defender a booking.
Gerrard drove a long-range effort over the bar late one before substitute Raheem Sterling had a superb chance to put the game beyond doubt, but the hosts held on for a well-deserved win.