Think of English clubs making spectacular comebacks in European football and you instantly think of Liverpool.
Of course you think of Manchester United too, whilst fans of Arsenal, Chelsea and other English clubs will all have their moments that they wish to share. Your mind doesn’t immediately turn to Middlesbrough, though.
Yet for many in the north-east of England it certainly does.
Boro’s stunning run to the 2006 UEFA Cup Final included a quarterfinal victory over Switzerland’s FC Basel when they scored four unanswered goals in the second leg―including a winner in the last minute―to come back from 3-0 down on aggregate to win 4-3.
In the semifinal against Steaua Bucharest they were again 3-0 down on aggregate and again came back to win 4-3 with a last-minute winner. It really should be the stuff of English football legend.
Key to both fightbacks was Boro’s winger Stewart Downing, a young player with huge potential who looked to have a promising career ahead of him. Seven years, 34 England caps and one £20 million move later, that potential still remains frustratingly unfulfilled.
Now, Downing will take his place in a Liverpool team who are bidding to overcome the two-goal deficit they face to Zenit St Petersburg following a disappointing evening in Russia a week ago. The Reds huffed and puffed at the Petrovsky Stadium, but failed to blow Zenit’s house down and then saw their hosts kick their own doors and windows in by grabbing two late goals. A promising result was lost.
Luis Suarez missed several opportunities in that first leg, and now the spotlight will once again fall on the Uruguayan as Liverpool go all out to try and reverse their fortunes.
Suarez already knew that he wouldn’t be able to link up with Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho here due to Liverpool’s January arrivals both being cup-tied. All three impressed and scored in Sunday’s emphatic 5-0 win over Swansea City, but the trio were never destined to unite again.
And so the attention was supposed to switch to Fabio Borini, with the match finally allowing the Italian attacker a chance to prove himself following the injury-hit start to his Anfield career. But Borini dislocated his shoulder after replacing Suarez at the weekend. His season is over.
Liverpool, then, are cast back into a situation in which Suarez is their only recognised forward. On a night when they need to score goals, it is hardly ideal.
Downing and Raheem Sterling are likely to be the players to flank the Uruguayan against Zenit, and whilst the younger Englishman will offer his usual pace, trickery and directness, it is his older compatriot who could prove more important on the night.
After winning over Brendan Rodgers following regular omissions from the team and sometimes squad at the beginning of the season, Downing still has some work to do to win over the majority of the Liverpool fans. A good display in another European comeback here would help matters.
He has form for this sort of night too.
As well as playing his part in those Middlesbrough comebacks mentioned above, Downing scored a stunning winner when a Russian side last visited Anfield as recently as October. The winger’s strike against Anzhi Makhachkala was arguably the turning point in his relationship with Rodgers and potentially his Liverpool career. He has been in the team virtually ever since.
Needing goals, the Reds will be buoyed by the fact that four of their last five home matches have ended with them recording a victory by a margin that would prove to be enough for qualification here, but Zenit are likely to present a tougher test than Fulham, Sunderland, Norwich and a weakened Swansea did. The hosts don’t have Sturridge or Coutinho now either.
They do have Suarez, though. And they do have Sterling.
They’ve got Downing too, and if the winger’s presence can inspire the type of comeback that we once saw from his former club, perhaps the night will represent a huge step in the right direction for that talented kid from Middlesbrough’s wing.
Zenit present an opportunity that Downing can, and perhaps needs to grasp.