Slow progress for Rodgers' Reds
Two steps forward, three steps back. Ask anyone connected with Liverpool about life under Brendan Rodgers, and they will tell you they believe he is leading the club in the right direction. It is just unfortunate that, by and large this season, it has not been reflected in their results. Every time he seems to be getting somewhere, there is a setback.
For long spells against an Udinese outfit struggling in Serie A, Liverpool were the better side. At half-time, they were a goal up and on course for victory. But then the wily Antonio Di Natale moved up a gear, Liverpool got slack and the match got away from them, despite Luis Suarez's best late attempts to save it. Progress from the Europa League group stages has suddenly become a good deal more difficult for Rodgers.
"We were very, very good in the first half, but the problems we had in the first 15 minutes of the second half have been with us from the beginning of the season," Rodgers said. "We lose concentration, we become lazy, and all of a sudden, we find ourselves 3-1 down."
It wasn't all bad news for Rodgers, by any means. The manager's recent decision to go public with his concerns about Stewart Downing's attitude brought a response that will have pleased him. For Downing, the fight for a Liverpool future began with an assist. And while he will need considerably more to convince Rodgers of his worth as a long-term part of the Anfield project, it was a start.
There is little doubt that Downing has lost his way at Anfield since Kenny Dalglish paid Aston Villa £20 million for him 15 months ago. He has still to score a Premier League goal for the club, and even assists have been hard to come by. Rodgers has been driven to distraction by what he has seen of the former England winger, suggesting first that he might want to try reinventing himself as a left-back, and then that he needed to add effort to talent if he wanted to remain a Liverpool player.
Coming from a manager who prides himself on good people management skills, such words must have stung Downing every bit as much as falling down the first-team pecking order. With the talented Raheem Sterling benched, the former Middlesbrough man was given an opportunity to show his manager's words had made some kind of impact. The signs were encouraging.
Midway through the first half, the England international collected Jonjo Shelvey's pass on the right flank and delivered a perfect cross for the midfielder to guide into the corner. It was not the only time in the first half that Udinese's midfielders failed to track a Shelvey run.
There were more moments of encouragement from Downing later in the game, with one run halted by a cynical challenge by Giampiero Pinzi that might have brought the Udinese midfielder more than a yellow card, and a late shot straight at keeper Zeljko Brkic as Liverpool chased the game.
There was plenty of verve about Liverpool in the opening 45 minutes, with Oussama Assaidi positive when given the chance to cut in from the left, Glen Johnson eager to get forward from right-back and Joe Allen using the ball effectively.
Yet even though Udinese looked out of sorts, Di Natale's presence meant that Liverpool were never quite safe. Two clever first-half efforts, one well saved by Pepe Reina and the other swerving just over the bar, came either side of a wonderful inswinging free-kick which Medhi Benatia glanced goalwards, with only Reina's quick reactions keeping the ball out.
Di Natale had been left out of the Udinese side for last Sunday's 0-0 draw with Genoa after a dressing-room row, and has not started regularly this season in a side who have won only one of their first six games in Serie A. But the striker, who turns 35 a week on Saturday, has a proven capacity to unlock a defence. He took only 34 seconds of the second half to prove that, playing the ball in behind the poorly-positioned Johnson for half-time substitute Andrea Lazzari before sweeping in the return cross.
The goal caused Liverpool to lose a good deal of their first-half fizz. In an attempt to regain it, Rodgers introduced Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez for the game's final quarter. What followed were two moments of set-piece farce, two moments of individual brilliance and three goals, all in the space of six breathless minutes.
First Shelvey got in the way of Suarez's acrobatic hook towards goal, which appeared to be going in after Benatia had flicked Downing's free-kick to the back post.Within a minute, Sebastian Coates had guided a Lazzari free-kick into his own net, and a Liverpool side who should have been leading were trailing.
Their feelings of shock increased when Di Natale punished them again with a wonderful piece of skill, juggling the ball inside the area with Jamie Carragher at his back, then timing the lay-off perfectly for the on-rushing Giovanni Pasquale to drive a low shot past Reina.
Still the scoring wasn't over, as Suarez smashed a free-kick past Brkic to give hope to those on the Kop. Suarez had two further chances in a frantic final 15 minutes, with Downing and Sterling also going close, but there was to be no equaliser. As far as Rodgers was concerned, Liverpool should not have had to find one in the first place.
"We can't be in positions where we have to score three, four, five goals to win games," Rodgers said. "We concede goals too easily and it's something we have to work on."
The priority for the manager is clear. The defence must tighten up. And his side must stop undoing all their good forward work by taking those backward steps.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Antonio Di Natale. Udinese's all-time leading scorer was the difference between the two sides. At times in the first half, it seemed as if he was their only threat. At times in the second, he was almost unplayable. His skill in holding the ball up for their third goal was sublime.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: The quick passing and good use of the ball that Brendan Rodgers wants to see from his team was frequently evident in the first half, and the way they bombarded Udinese's goal in the closing stages showed an ability to increase the pressure when they need to. But they were strangely flat for a long spell in the second half after Udinese equalised, and need to be far more disciplined in their defending.
UDINESE VERDICT: Francesco Guidolin's side lost two key players to Juventus in the summer in Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla, and are struggling to recapture the form that took them to third in Serie A last season. And yet, once Di Natale started to lift his team-mates, there were signs that they could enjoy a decent season. Anzhi Mackhachkala may be favourites to win Group A, but Udinese look the best current bet to go through with them.