At the same Istanbul venue as their famous Champions League penalty triumph in 2005, Dejan Lovren’s shootout miss cost Liverpool a route back to the continent’s top table next season after elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Besiktas. After nine near-perfect penalties had found the net, Lovren stepped up and blasted high into the stands to give the Turkish Super Lig leaders a 5-4 win on penalties in the Round of 32 tie.
While Liverpool had famously pegged back a 3-0 deficit against Milan at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium a decade ago, this time it was they who had their lead overturned. Substitute Tolgay Arslan’s fine second-half strike cancelled out Mario Balotelli’s late penalty in the first leg at Anfield a week ago to take the contest to extra time and onto penalties spot kicks for the Merseysiders in Istanbul once more. After successful conversion from Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Emre Can and Joe Allen, it was Lovren who erred to bring further misery to what has been a disappointing first season at Anfield since his big-money move from Southampton.
Having begun the campaign back in the Champions League for the first time in five years, this defeat ends what has been a hugely forgettable season in Europe for Liverpool. They have fallen at the first attempt in both competitions, with this loss meaning they miss out on the chance to land a first trophy of Brendan Rodgers’ reign and earn a place in next season’s Champions League group phase. All emphasis will now be put on continuing their return to form in the Premier League and garnering a precious place in the top four.
Still in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, Liverpool have already played the same amount of games as throughout the whole of last season, and their defeat in the Turkish capital provided signs that Rodgers’ squad was struggling with the demands. Eight players missed the trip to Turkey, including injured midfield trio Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva as well as the rested Philippe Coutinho. An altered lineup meant first starts in some time for Mario Balotelli and Kolo Toure as well as a tweak in the formation with Raheem Sterling lining up behind Balotelli and Sturridge.
Still, for Liverpool the first half offered precious few hints at the drama that was to follow. Despite the encouragement from a fired up crowd, Besiktas lacked urgency and failed to create a single chance of note. Olcay Sahan’s shot straight at Simon Mignolet being the one moment of slight concern. The match had more needle than quality in the opening 45 minutes in particular. But it was Liverpool who looked the side more likely to make the breakthrough. Starting together for the first time since the latter’s debut last August, there was some nice link up play between Sturridge and Balotelli. But Sturridge on a couple of occasions lacked the sureness of touch when seemingly through on goal. The closest the visitors came to a precious away goal was an effort from Sterling that Cenk Gonen parried to safety.
The pattern of the game changed considerably in the second half. Besiktas, surely fired up by the words of manager and former Everton defender Slaven Bilic at halftime, played with far greater impetus, while Liverpool reverted to the position of passively waiting for the fulltime whistle. For the hosts, it was still largely more a case of endeavor over quality, until substitute Arslan came to the fore. The January signing from Hamburg had already caused Rodgers’ heart to race on the sideline with a powerful 30-yard effort that whistled past the post when two minutes later he found the target. Liverpool’s standing off was in evidence as Gokhan Tore cut in from the left, fed Ba, whose flicked lay off was met by a delightful curling strike beyond the dive of Mignolet to find the top corner of the net.
The match was so nearly ended without the need for extra time. Former Chelsea striker Ba battered the underside of the crossbar with a fierce shot from just six yards out that had Mignolet beaten. As it turned out, Liverpool may be left wishing Ba’s strike had found the net. Instead they toiled in vain for an extra 30 minutes, with the added mental exertion of penalties, ahead of a battle for what is now an even more important three points against Manchester City on Sunday.