Following Liverpool’s narrow 1-0 win against the Turkish giants, Ben Twelves picks five discussion points from the hard-fought encounter.
Brendan Rodgers’ Reds will take a vital lead to Istanbul next week thanks to Mario Balotelli’s nerveless late penalty in front of the Kop.
The 85th minute spot-kick – won after a brilliant run from the excellent Jordon Ibe ended with the youngster being tripped – gives Rodgers’ side vital breathing space ahead of what promises to be a testing second leg in the historic Ataturk Stadium.
It’s an important result for Liverpool but far from job done, and here are the discussion topics from the welcome result.
Lack of Rotation Contributes to Lethargic Display
The hectic schedule over recent weeks caught up with the Reds last night and almost left Rodgers ruing a lack of rotation across the busy weeks.
Emre Can and Philippe Coutinho were the main culprits of this as the pair failed to replicate the level of performance we have become accustomed to, and both could have done with a rest – especially the Brazilian who made his 18th consecutive start.
Coutinho's 18th start in a row tonight.
— This Is Anfield (@thisisanfield) February 19, 2015
Coutinho was sloppy throughout, with very little of his usual magic coming off – starving Daniel Sturridge and the team of any attacking impetus from the middle of the pitch as a result – and he struggled to make an impact cutting a tired figure in the Reds attack.
Emre Can hasn't put a foot wrong for weeks for Liverpool…..but he can't put a foot right tonight
— John Bradley (@jbradleymedia) February 19, 2015
At the other end, Can endured his first poor performance in a red shirt since his regular inclusion in the side, and the German wasn’t as assured defensively or in possession – where his sloppiness put Liverpool under pressure twice – and he lacked the drive and energy alongside his composure that has seen him deservedly win many plaudits.
Rodgers reacted to the duo’s ineffective displays by correctly withdrawing and preserving Coutinho ahead of Sunday’s tough encounter, and moving Can into midfield for extra solidity as his side searched for a winner and credit must go to the boss for the game-changing switches.
While he rightly should receive praise, Rodgers has however created a problem for himself with the lack of rotation over both players, who look like two months of consistent action is beginning to catch up with them and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
At least we know that there's no point talking about the need to build a squad of 20 players next Summer #lfc
— Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) February 19, 2015
Match Winner Mario
For the third match running, it was Balotelli’s introduction that proved crucial to Liverpool picking up the much needed win.
The Italian – introduced to the fold after 63 minutes for Coutinho – threw himself straight into the action alongside Sturridge, and instantly provided an edge to the Reds attack with his pace and strength causing problems to the Besiktas back-line.
The Supersub’s presence freed up the previously restricted Sturridge and allowed for the 25-year-old to roam and the midfield to push up higher, as he drew the attention of opposition defenders and midfielders attempting to cut supply into the Italy international.
Mario Balotelli has scored four goals for Liverpool – all four being in the final 10 minutes of games.
— This Is Anfield (@thisisanfield) February 20, 2015
Balotelli’s all-round play was hugely positive with his touch and hold-up play excellent for the duration he was on, and the man for the late occasion got his rewards for another positive impact as he made the vital contribution again in the final 10 minutes, notching a nerveless penalty in front of the Kop under increased scrutiny.
Another impressive display and vital impact could tempt Rodgers into igniting a Balotelli-Sturridge strike partnership.
#LFC with Balotelli and Sturridge on the pitch: 6 goals in 121 minutes. Liverpool have won all four games that both have played in.
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) February 19, 2015
Jordon Ibe’s Impact Impressive Again
The talented teenager will deservedly claim the plaudits for another superb showing on the right of midfield where he provided the biggest threat all night.
Extremely positive in possession every time he received the ball, Ibe was fearless as he carried the fight for Rodgers’ team down the right side – where his pace and skill alongside his determination saw him create three chances and made him a very difficult proposition to defend against.
It was through another fantastic burst forward from the 18-year-old – who completed 10 dribbles alone on the night – that saw him force his way into the box and draw the foul to hand the Reds the chance to take a lead to Turkey next week, which Balotelli duly accepted.
Good win. Jordan Ibe man of the match. Balotelli impressed again as a sub.
— Jamie Carragher (@Carra23) February 19, 2015
The former-Wycombe man – despite only a limited amount of time in the team – is on his way to making the right-side position his own in the current set-up – where his attacking exploits are complimented by an underrated defensive maturity.
Rodgers on Ibe: Played in big games now, he's a real threat every time he has the ball. He works very very hard for the team. Outstanding.
— This Is Anfield (@thisisanfield) February 19, 2015
Reports that the youngster is set to sign a new five year deal at Liverpool is certainly music to the ears of Kopite’s everywhere.
Sturridge Still Searching for Sharpness
The striker’s presence in the attack is undeniably a huge plus to the team, but match sharpness continues to evade the 25-year-old who endured a frustrating night.
After a lively start, Sturridge found himself tightly marked throughout with his main contribution coming through free-kicks in both halves, and the lack of space afforded and supply from Coutinho saw the Reds become reliant on Ibe to make the difference from wide-right.
It wasn’t until Balotelli entered proceedings that the England man found more space to operate and spring into life, but on too many occasions Sturridge slowed the attack or was dispossessed – highlighted by the fact he recorded more unsuccessful touches than any Liverpool player on the night (3).
Think Sturridge knows he hasn't been at his best tonight, probably a bit of frustration in penalty incident. #LFC.
— Si Steers (@sisteers) February 19, 2015
The goal machine has been good since his return nonetheless, and the most exciting part is that Sturridge still has another level of performance to find alongside match intensity.
Advantage Liverpool, but Tough Second-Leg Awaits
The Reds fulfilled their target of taking a lead and clean sheet to Turkey thanks to Balotelli’s well-taken penalty, but there’s still plenty of work to do before Liverpool can even think about the last 16.
Besiktas showed plenty of positives with their threat from wide areas through the tricky Gokhan Tore and Demba Ba’s danger in front of goal, and Bilic’s well-organised side will take encouragement from the way they restricted Liverpool finding rhythm and fluidity in the match.
Rodgers’ men face a big challenge in Istanbul to complete the job, and the Reds will need Simon Mignolet to be at his best to keep the Turkish league leaders at bay – as he did superbly on Thursday night producing an excellent save when one-on-one with Ba.
An away goal in the memory-filled Ataturk Stadium could be enough to secure qualification for Rodgers’ side, but Liverpool must ensure they remain focussed defensively against a team who have to score in order to give themselves a chance of progressing.