Zenit stark reminder of falling European standing

Posted by Kristian Walsh

Forty years after their first triumph in Europe, Liverpool have possibly never looked so far from another. Clinging onto this season's competition by their fingernails after Thursday's 2-0 defeat to Zenit, and placed ninth in the Premier League, it could be a while before the passports are taken from the top drawer again.

- Rodgers: The tie is not over

Forget the travails playing against Christian Benteke or Romelu Lukaku; disregard Oldham Athletic's Matt Smith in his entire lower league comic book glory. This result, more than most, shows the fall Liverpool have suffered in recent times. The domestic competitions may be their bread and butter, but Europe has always represented a feast for comfort, an arena where the inexplicable happens and magic flows through the River Mersey. No more.

The finger pointing has begun in earnest already. Aim has been taken at Brendan Rodgers and his tactics; barbs have flown toward the squad, particularly its underachieving members. The fact remains flags on either side were planted into the ground long ago - this is simply an exercise in grinding them even further toward the mantle and core.

Criticism will be justified, no matter the recipient. Even Luis Suarez, so often the source of wizardry and wonder, turned into Liverpool's biggest scourge. Having scored 20 goals this season, debate over whether the Uruguayan is a scorer has been stifled quickly.

What timing he had to choose this night as the one to re-ignite it. Each miss became more slapstick and incredulous, and with it, the away goal to settle his side disintegrated into the biting Russian night.

But Suarez was merely a cog in a system that completely malfunctioned with 20 minutes remaining, though sparks and oil began to spurt far earlier than that. That is if the system ever fully started in the first place, for Liverpool did not seem to have any sort of plan for a team deserving of one.

Zenit are chock full with international players possessing experience at the highest level of European football. On the sideline, a wily Italian with a thin moustache but thick book of knowledge collated from extensive experience, a man who played false nines before Lionel Messi wore 10 at Camp Nou. This was not paint-by-numbers. This was a setup to treat with respect.

Irrespective of Liverpool looking comfortable - a contentious claim in itself - Zenit are renowned for having players with powerful strikes, feet that move forward with venomous force. Yet the away side perpetually stood off Zenit, gave them space and allowed them time to shoot. The danger was there early, but still they kept backing off, Hulk eventually taking the invitation with 20 minutes remaining.

But that merely tops a long list of issues still to be addressed by Rodgers, issues not touched throughout the 90 minutes. No tactics can prepare for Suarez's profligacy, but there is so much more wrong. The defence was deep, as was the midfield duo of Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen, despite Zenit's midfield being a dynamic, adventurous sort. Liverpool were fortunate Roman Shirokov and Axel Witsel were largely inconsistent, but then Stewart Downing and Raheem Sterling were wholly inconsequential.

As Liverpool went a goal down and quickly two, realisation will have set in; realisation of the gulf between this Liverpool and those who have conquered the finest stadia in Europe. This brutal, deadening reality was not because of whom they had gone 2-0 down to, but how.

Make no mistake, Zenit are a good side, albeit one still on their winter break. Defeat was never wholly unexpected, nor is it inexplicable. The Russians are a team of Champions League quality, their fall and fate decided by some unfortunate ball-plucking to marry them with AC Milan and Malaga. Liverpool could - and should - have been rewarded with a far simpler tie for finishing at the top of a tough group.

But after more than an hour of containment, Liverpool failed to retain their heads. The ability to keep the ball extolled so enthusiastically by all at the club was missing once more. Much like the Arsenal game a few weeks ago, the second goal was inevitable following the first. In a league game, giving away two goals is galling; in a two-legged European tie, it can quicken elimination.

Maybe the surprising thing is such a defeat comes as a surprise. Only six of Liverpool's starting 11 have played in the Champions League, against a team worthy of the competition. When Rodgers was given his first job at Watford in 2008, Luciano Spalletti had already beaten Real Madrid home and away with his Roma side.

How the dogged experience of Dirk Kuyt or Maxi Rodriguez would have been welcomed on a sticky pitch engulfed by an intimidating atmosphere. That the likes of Sterling, Allen and Jordan Henderson will have gained experience of such an evening is one of the only positives to take for Liverpool. Even Kuyt, Maxi, Gerrard and Jamie Carragher had to start somewhere.

But this tie is not over. Not yet. But it will be if Zenit score next week, for four goals is a big ask against a team of their quality. It will be a chance for the aforementioned trio of youngsters to experience Anfield in full voice on a European night; a chance for Rodgers to have the moment of magic his reign has lacked so far, showing the nous needed to outwit a coach like Spalletti.

But a chance, above all else, to not feel a million miles away from the sides that conquered Europe for the past 40 years. A chance the hefty book of club's European glory will not wither and fray in the coming years. That's as important as anything.

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