Downing strike puts Liverpool on top of the table


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The Independent Online

Their shirts were bright yellow but that is as far as Anzhi Makhachkala came to providing Liverpool with a banana skin. The boys from Dagestan, the strangest and probably wealthiest club in the world, produced just one shot for Liverpool's reserve keeper, Brad Jones, to save.

Liverpool, having faced the prospect of elimination after the 3-2 defeat to Udinese are now top of their group.

Relations between Stewart Downing and manager Brendan Rodgers have never been comfortable with the Ulsterman insinuating that Downing lacked the requisite "fight".

Nevertheless, as he did last season in the League Cup, Downing has revelled in the sideshows. He had sparkled against Udinese and now he provided one of the few lasting memories of a flat, uninspired fixture, cutting inside, and sending a shot into the net beneath the Kop with force and precision. They may not get on but Rodgers clapped and beamed. In the Europa League they are still friends.

Much has been made of Manchester City's 'group of death' but, lumped in with the third-best side in Serie A and one of the wealthiest sporting institutions in the world, Liverpool found themselves in a group where it was possible to be hurt very easily.

You felt for Rodgers. His squad had been stricken by injuries and some inept transfer business, defeat might end Liverpool's hopes of further progress in the Europa League and there is the small matter of the Merseyside derby on Sunday.

He shuffled his pack pretty well. Luis Suarez led the attack, Liverpool's back four was a first-choice affair. Steven Gerrard started.

There was plenty of movement and possession but not a great deal of threat to Vladimir Gabulov's goal – apart from a shot by Glen Johnson and one from Oussama Assaidi, who sparkled on Liverpool's left.

Suarez produced a single slice of brilliance, turning his marker at astonishing speed and squaring the ball to Christopher Samba for Jonjo Shelvey, who sent his shot high into the night sky. Before the interval, Johnson had been the one stand-out player and when he did not reappear, a frisson of anxiety flew round Anfield.

Anzhi's manager, Guus Hiddink, above, who earns more than Sir Alex Ferguson, would argue that his team are more than about the money paid to their players. Samuel Eto'o may have won the European Cup three times but would a Europa League group game at Anfield enthuse him? Eto'o produced nothing to suggest that he is still among the world's best footballers, as opposed to the best-paid. It took him until the 70th minutes to find a shot on target.

Anzhi's owner, Suleiman Kerimov, may be wealthy enough to withstand a $14billion loss in the 2008 crash but even he must wonder if last night represented value for his money.