LIVERPOOL FC waved goodbye to the Europa League last night. Now the one remaining challenge for Brendan Rodgers this season is to ensure the absence is only a shortlived one.
Attempts to etch another chapter in Anfield European folklore ended in heroic failure as Rodgers’s men saw their final route to silverware slammed shut on a dramatic evening.
Aiming to overturn a two-goal first leg deficit in their round of 32 tie, Liverpool scored the three goals required but suffered the agony of being eliminated on away goals.
Rarely can such an impressive victory have been met with such heartache.
But once the disappointment of this exit subsides, so minds must concentrate on the final target of a strong Premier League finish and sealing an instant return to the Europa League.
This wasn’t the manner in which Jamie Carragher would have wanted to sign off his Continental career by joining an exclusive club alongside Raul, Clarence Seedorf, Javier Zanetti, Ryan Giggs and Paolo Maldini in making a 150th European appearance.
Carragher was at fault for Hulk’s 19th-minute opener with an undercooked backpass that gifted Zenit the away goal that ultimately proved crucial.
The veteran defender deserved better. But the tie wasn’t lost last night.
Liverpool will rue their profligacy in last week’s first leg, which allowed Zenit to snaffle two late goals and assume an initiative Rodgers’ men just couldn’t quite manage to wrest back.
Suarez, chief villain in front of goal in Russia, almost made amends with an inspired performance, sweeping home two fantastic free-kicks that sandwiched Joe Allen’s close-range strike.
Roared on by a passionate Anfield crowd, Liverpool still had more than half-an-hour remaining to score a tie-clinching fourth.
And in retrospect, Rodgers may wonder whether he was right to haul off Allen and Jordan Henderson – both of whom were enjoying fine games – and thus disrupt his team’s rhythm.
The Anfield outfit subsequently never quite offered the same threat, leaving an exhausted Suarez to slump to the turf in tears at the final whistle.
History suggested it was always going to be a big ask for Liverpool. In the 11 previous occasions they went into a second leg looking to claw back a two-goal deficit, only once – against Auxerre in November 1991 – had they been successful.
Zenit, the Russian champions, had dropped into the competition from the Champions League and could boast a wealth of European experience.
While Liverpool warmed up for the tie with a 5-0 romp over an under-strength Swansea City at the weekend, this was only Zenit’s second competitive game in two months.
Liverpool’s attacking efforts were always going to be compromised by the absence of cup-tied duo Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, both of whom scored against Swansea.