It will not go down as Liverpool’s most famous appearance at the Ataturk. They will not make a film about it; it will not become shorthand for everything that is wonderfully improbable in sport.
It may not have ended up with the side that had been three goals down at half-time lifting the European trophy but it was still an epic evening and, like the one a decade ago, it finished in a penalty shoot-out. This time Liverpool lost it – the first time they have failed in a shoot-out in European football.
Simon Mignolet will not join Jerzy Dudek and Bruce Grobbelaar as Liverpool goalkeepers who have won penalty shoot-outs on the grand European stage. He did not get near any of the penalties he was required to save – no keeper would have done. Then, with the score at 5-4 in the shoot-out, Dejan Lovren, whose £20m summer move from Southampton has soured with each passing week, sent his kick high into the night skies of Istanbul.
Even had they won, Liverpool would still have returned to John Lennon Airport in the small hours of this morning a patched-up, exhausted side, having to face the champions of England at noon on Sunday. They returned slightly later, rather more tired and beaten.
The night turned on a substitution. Like Liverpool’s Emre Can, Tolgay Arslan grew up in Germany of Turkish parents. Can was a product of Bayern Munich’s youth system, Arslan went to the Borussia Dortmund academy. Both chose to play for Germany and both, in their own ways, performed superbly last night.
Arslan announced himself with a shot from 30 yards that half the stadium thought had gone in. Then came the breakthrough. Gokhan Tore, as he did for much of the match, cut in menacingly before squaring the ball across the face of the 18-yard line to Demba Ba. Arslan met his little flick just ahead of Lovren.
This was the third Premier League side Besiktas had faced this season at the Ataturk. None had scored a goal and Tottenham and Liverpool were both beaten. The Besiktas manager, Slaven Bilic, was entitled to his smiles. “Liverpool were probably the favourites to win the Europa League,” he said. “This is a great feeling, a great night for our club and a great night for Turkish football. We completely deserved to beat Liverpool. We were not brave enough in the first leg and, to be fair to Liverpool, they did not have the creative players in midfield and in the second half, they were fading, fading, fading.”
Before Arslan came on and Liverpool started to fade, this was a match they had done supremely well to keep Besiktas quiet. The opening 45 minutes saw them restrict the Turkish side to a single worthwhile shot while, going forward, both Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling worked the Turkish keeper, Cenk Gonen, hard.
For a young side still feeling its way back into European competition, it was impressively mature stuff, conducted in the teeth of sustained hostility.
It had been a very thin red line that had faced Besiktas. If the side Brendan Rodgers selected seemed an aggressive one considering that their task was to defend the one-goal lead Mario Balotelli’s penalty at Anfield had given them, it was largely because of necessity. Liverpool had no injuries among their forwards but Joe Allen and Can represented all of Rodgers’s remaining central midfielders. Kolo Touré found himself at right-back. Had Mamadou Sakho been fit to play, Lovren would probably not have started. Martin Skrtel, however, kept his focus throughout, making a superb tackle to deny Ba in the first half, hooking away a half-parried shot in extra time.
When Liverpool last travelled to Istanbul to play Besiktas, the sound of the Inonu Stadium was overwhelming. Eight years on and the Inonu is a building site with Istanbul’s third club setting up a temporary home deep on the city’s edge.
The Ataturk did not quite have 70,000 screaming defiance at Liverpool as some had promised in the days leading up to kick-off but it was still vastly intimidating. Two hours before kick-off, banks of supporters had been waving vast white banners while the air filled with pounding music and the scent of smoke from tobacco and flares. Everything connected to Liverpool was howled down. It was impressive but you wondered if the Besiktas players possessed the same stamina as their supporters.
They did. With each passing moment of the second half, Liverpool appeared increasingly drained. Besiktas, too, had shown some of the strain of a Europa League campaign. Having returned to Istanbul after their narrow defeat on Merseyside, they had lost their leadership of the Turkish Superlig at Eskisehirspor, the kind of mid-table side they ought to have beaten routinely.
Nevertheless, Bilic rested three players for that game and that, plus his introduction of Arslan, might have been the telling factor here.
When, with extra time seconds away, Ba sent his shot crashing on to Mignolet’s crossbar, there would have been a small part of Rodgers – the Machiavellian part – that might not have minded had it gone in. One thing Liverpool did not need was more football.
- More about:
- Liverpool FC