A difficult week for Liverpool took another turn for the worse when two quick second-half goals gave Zenit St Petersburg a first-leg lead that leaves Brendan Rodgers’ side in a perilous position in the only competition they have a chance of winning this season.
Liverpool, beaten by two late West Bromwich Albion goals at Anfield on Monday night, again conceded twice in quick succession in their Europa League round of 32 first leg in Russia when the highly-rated Brazilian Hulk and the substitute Sergei Semak struck in the 70th and 72nd minute respectively at the Petrovsky Stadium.
Rodgers, though, insisted that his side are still in with a fighting chance of turning around their two-goal deficit.
Having missed a number of chances – with top scorer Luis Suarez being the main culprit – Liverpool went behind to Hulk’s brilliant long-range effort before the substitute Semak added the second moments later.
It leaves Liverpool’s hopes of progressing to the last 16 of the competition in the balance for the return leg at Anfield next week but Rodgers remains optimistic.
“There is no way the tie is over, not by a long shot. We are more than capable of getting the goals back,” he said. “I think the next goal is vitally important for us and what gives us hope is we created enough to win the game. If we get it early it can create the momentum for us.”
The Liverpool manager defended his decision to take off Raheem Sterling late in the match and send on defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva instead of pushing for what would have been a vital away goal.
“I was just making sure we stayed in the tie, that was the important thing for us,” he said. “As much as we wanted to go on there is another game and at 2-0 you can retrieve something, at 3-0 it would have cost us. The idea was to try to secure the game and keep it where it was at knowing that is retrievable and gives us a fighting chance.”
Rodgers was disappointed that, having created so many good chances and managing to keep Zenit at bay, they conceded the goals they did. “It is one of those games where, after that first five- or 10-minute spell, I thought we looked solid and a threat going forward and we could have been leading at half-time,” he said.
“Going into the last 20-25 minutes I was thinking we could win the game but we gave away two poor goals. The first one is a terrific strike but we are disappointed with the build-up and we could have defended it better.
“We ended up losing the game when we probably should have won the game.”
Rodgers refused to criticise Suarez after the Uruguay international could not find the finishing touch. “He could have had a hat-trick by half-time,” Rodgers said.
“It just wasn’t his night but he’s been brilliant for us all season. The important thing is that after his first one-on-one, he kept going and was still in there.”
Although there was an unconfirmed report of one instance of a monkey chant being made the match passed off without incident despite fears that Zenit’s infamous racist element would target the visiting side’s black players.
“I read and heard a lot about Zenit St Petersburg as a club, city and people before we got here,” said Rodgers.
“I can only thank the club for how we’ve been received here. It has been fantastic – there were no problems at the game, it was a wonderful atmosphere and we want to thank the people of Zenit and Russia.”
Man of the match Hulk.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee C V Carballo (Sp).