Zenit vs. Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned in Reds' Defeat
Liverpool failed to secure a good result in their UEFA Europa League Round of 32 first leg, as they ended up on the wrong end of a 2-0 scoreline to Zenit St. Petersburg. It was a hard game for the Reds to make headway in, and manager Brendan Rodgers will need to take a few lessons from the game.
Despite the Reds enjoying spells where they had more possession than their hosts, chances on goal were few and far between, with the majority falling to the misfiring Luis Suarez, who had a particularly off day in front of goal.
Hulk got the scoring going with a thunderbolt from range, before Sergey Semak scored the second just two minutes later.
The Reds have it all to do now in the second leg at Anfield in a week. Here are six things we can take from the game.
Liverpool's Midfield Far Too Weak
A lingering, ongoing problem for Liverpool is the strength of the midfield.
Strength, in terms of both physicality and mental resilience, is something that the centre of the park is sorely lacking in for Liverpool and has been for some time.
As soon as the first goal went in, the Reds visibly wilted under a barrage of pressure from the Zenit players, and what was a comfortable-looking 0-0 draw was suddenly a 2-0 deficit within three minutes.
Lucas was rested from the start so Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard made up Liverpool's central trio; they have their respective attributes but overpowering and dominating the opposition by will and force is not up there with the biggest.
Liverpool really have to make a strong holding midfielder a priority in the summer.
Who Else Is Contributing to Trying to Score?
Luis Suarez struck an early shot just wide of the far post, took on the goalkeeper and failed to get an effort away, back-heeled an attempt wide of the near post and curled a shot wide from the edge of the area.
Anybody else planning on getting involved?
Short of Glen Johnson almost scoring at the end of one thrusting, driving run, the only other player to have a recognisable attempt on goal was Stewart Downing after cutting infield to shoot.
Simply put, the movement and the aggression, the confidence and the intent was all missing in the final third from any Liverpool player who wasn't wearing a No. 7 on his back.
With Suarez not wearing his goalscoring boots, there was basically no chance of the Reds scoring in Russia.
Joe Allen Continues to Struggle for Form
One of the few changes Liverpool made in their starting lineup was to change the deep midfielder, leaving Lucas out for Joe Allen.
Allen has been out of the side recently after losing his early season form and has been struggling to find a role in the team even accounting for his drop in form.
His confidence seems to have disappeared along with his ability to retain possession and dictate the tempo of a match, and he continued along the same lines against Zenit St. Petersburg.
Allen needs a few big games. If he plays against former club Swansea City at the weekend then, for his sake as much as Liverpool's, it has to be a good performance.
He wasn't the Reds' worst against Zenit, but in such a key position in a big game, he was sorely lacking again.
Hulk: Rather One-Dimensional but Hugely Effective in His Role
Lots of the pre-game chatter had been about Zenit forward Hulk. Predictable enough as he was a huge money signing, but in truth Zenit have several other players who offer just as much to the team.
Hulk himself was an impressive performer though. Mainly playing from the right flank cutting in, he popped up both on the flank and through the centre to good effect, driving through the gaps in the Reds' midfield and looking to shoot from range a number of times.
He was far from a one-trick pony, getting involved in the build up play and appearing on the opposite flank a few times to cross with power, but clearly his best plays in the game came from the right.
A venomously struck shot found the top corner for the opening goal of the game, proving his quality in that area of the pitch, and he was a big contributor to the threat Zenit posed.
Brendan Rodgers' Reluctance to Use Substitutes
Not for the first time in recent matches, Brendan Rodgers showed a surprising reluctance to turn to his bench for reinforcements when the game could have either been swung in Liverpool's favour or else needed the dynamics changed to avoid being overrun.
With 25 minutes remaining the Reds seemed largely in control, Zenit looked to be tiring and a positive change—perhaps Borini for Henderson, for example, with Suarez dropping deeper—might have signaled to the team that there was real belief a win was on the cards.
Five minutes later and the team trailed 2-0, but only Lucas for Raheem Sterling was the change decided upon by the boss. The move itself was fine; it offered security to ensure the team stayed in the tie and could shut the Russian side out in the centre of midfield, but it didn't help the match to be played out more in Zenit's half of the pitch.
Some of the players might be wondering by now if they are trusted at all by the manager to have a positive influence on matches.
Second Leg at Anfield: A Memorable European Night Ahead?
2-0 down, Liverpool have it all to do.
Still needing three goals at Anfield on a European night is not exactly new territory for the Reds; St. Etienne, Auxerre and Olympiacos all spring to mind.
Whether this particular side are capable of doing the business against Zenit St. Petersburg is another matter.
Liverpool certainly have the ability and potential to score two or three goals at home, but can they keep the Russians at bay? The defensive side of Liverpool's play recently has been far from solid, and they cannot afford to fail to keep a clean sheet in the second leg.
Still, this is what big nights are all about, and there are few better settings to perform such heroic acts than at Anfield, in front of the Kop.
It's not over yet.