Brendan Rodgers draws on special Anfield night despite Liverpool's Europa League exit
Liverpool 3 Zenit St Petersburg 1 (Zenit win on away goals)
It was a tantalising glimpse of the past Liverpool are so desperately trying to re-create.
The drama, the denouement, the din almost heaving the roof off Anfield. We actually seemed to be stepping back into that gilded European era which, precisely six years ago last night, saw Rafael Benitez's team step out in front of 88,000 fans in the Nou Camp, beat Barcelona 2-1 and begin to believe, prophetically as things turned out, that they might travel all the way to another Champions League final.
That the Europa League should have proved beyond them at the first knock-out stage, leaving the eternally positive Brendan Rodgers to speak reverentially late last night about Zenit as "a team of that ilk" is a measure of how far they must climb to get back. "Hopefully in the future there will be many more great nights. Having experienced that, I want many more," the Liverpool manager also said. It's part of the agony of belonging to Liverpool that no-one knows how long that might take.
It may feel like a slightly desolate place when the dust settles, with no fixture this weekend and nothing left to play for except the very slender prospect of a top-four place in the Premier League. But at least this was a touchstone to the past; a performance– led by Luis Suarez but written through by the contributions of Lucas Leiva, Jose Enrique and Joe Allen – to warm spirits chilled by the last six months.
Everyone had a night of spirited European football to invoke as Liverpool sought the improbable feat of overturning a two-goal European first leg deficit for only the second time in their history. Although they began impressively and forcefully, with Steven Gerrard in an advanced role and Jordan Henderson and Enrique threatening with their delivery from the left, the Russian counter-attacking trident of Hulk, Danny and Axel Witsel was rapier fast.
This was the prospect that Jamie Carragher was confronted with a little less than 20 minutes in, when Gerrard's fire-and-brimstone tackle cannoned back to the feet of the 35-year-old. Quick feet were required to control with his right and clear with his left from the lurking Hulk. Carragher didn't possess them. The striker pounced, seizing the ball and romping forward 15 yards to place the ball past Pepe Reina. It was a desperate moment for Carragher and one which so ill-befitted his last European night for his beloved club. "There's no blame. It's probably the first mistake I've seen him make since I've been at the football club," Rodgers reflected.
A mountain was in Liverpool's way but they poured forward to scale it, delivering players to the offensive effort who have simply not been in there during some of the capitulations which have punctuated this season. First Daniel Agger, slaloming through towards the Russian area, to be felled Igor Denisov, for the free-kick which Suarez thumped, right-footed, through the kind of wall for which eastern Europe is not famous. Then Allen lurking in the area to receive an Enrique cross, deflected off the foot of a lunging Aleksandr Anyukov, which he scooped in adroitly after Vyacheslav Malafeev had parried his first header.
Rodgers insisted last night that his side were denied a penalty at 2-1, when Tomas Hubocan waved his arms at a Suarez cross, though initial viewing suggested the ball hit his leg. More questionable seemed to be the manager's decision simultaneously to remove Allen and Henderson, both performing well, for Jonjo Shelvey, who struggled, and Ossama Assaidi, which affected the rhythm of the team. At the time, Suarez had just levelled the scores with a searing free-kick. Liverpool were favourites then. This seemed like a moment for Rodgers to stick, not twist.
Assaidi's one mazy run drew yet another Suarez free-kick, which Malafeev palmed sharply away before a gilt-edged opportunity was blasted wide by Shelvey. The players left to an ovation and the stadium stilled at last. But the hope is unceasing. They won't stop believing that there will be a brighter day.
Man of the match Suarez.
Match rating 9/10.
Referee B Kuipers (Neth).
Belfast Telegraph Digital