Liverpool gave their chances of making the Europa League knockout phase a huge boost with a 1-0 win over Anzhi Makhachkala at Anfield.
With a defeat at home to Udinese last time out leaving the Reds in a precarious position in their group, manager Brendan Rodgers elected to field a strong lineup featuring Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, despite the Merseyside derby being just three days away.
The bold move paid dividends, though, as Liverpool recorded a deserved victory over the Russian league leaders, courtesy of Stewart Downing’s strike early in the second half.
With Anzhi electing to go with a two defensive midfielders and Samuel Eto’o as the lone frontman with Lacina Traore left on the bench, Guus Hiddink set his stall out to frustrate Liverpool.
The tactic largely worked for the opening 45 minutes as Liverpool controlled proceedings, but failed to seriously test Anzhi’s Russia international goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov.
What threat Liverpool did provide came down their left side and in particular from winger Oussama Assaidi. The Moroccan twice showed his trickery in quick succession as he first provided a shooting chance for Luis Suarez that the Uruguayan put tamely at Gabulov, before Glen Johnson produced a solid save from Anzhi’s keeper from a similar Assaidi pull back.
An even better chance fell Liverpool’s way in the 24th minute. Suarez took advantage of some lax defending by Joao Carlos to burst toward the penalty area before squaring the ball to Jonjo Shelvey, who from a central position 18 yards out leaned back and side-footed poorly over the bar.
Assaidi then forced an opening for himself as the summer signing battled past a defender to get into the box, but fired low at Gabulov at his near post.
The best chance of the opening half, though, fell the way of Johnson. Again playing at left-back, the England international got in behind the defense courtesy of a neat one-two with Suarez and just as he looked poised to score missed his kick and fell to the turf claiming a foul from behind by Kamil Agalarov. The referee waved play on, correctly interpreting that it had been more a case of Johnson losing his balance than any infringement.
Anzhi were restricted to rare forward forays on the counter attack as Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez and Fyodr Smolov tried to support Samuel Eto’o from wide. Their only attempt on goal in the first half came from an effort from 20 yards by Smolov that was always just swerving away from Brad Jones’ goal.
With Raheem Sterling replacing Johnson at the interval, Liverpool came out with increased tempo and attacking intent.
Martin Skrtel demonstrated his side’s renewed vigor as he stole the ball off Eto’o and launched a fierce 30 yard effort that Gabulov did well to react smartly and block low to his right.
Liverpool’s bright start to the second half continued as Shelvey crossed in from the right and Gerrard was just unable to control his header and sent the ball high and wide.
The pressure would not take long to pay dividends as Liverpool grabbed the lead eight minutes after the break.
Downing, switched to left-back with Sterling’s introduction, ambled in from the left touch line before letting fly on his weaker right foot and sending a rasping shot into the far corner. After being shown little faith by Rodgers and often derided by fans, the goal will have been particularly pleasing to the England international.
Suarez was inches from making it 2-0 just moments later as he produced a fierce drive from 30 yards that just went the wrong side of the post.
With Anzhi now forced to abandon some of the organizational discipline that characterized their play in the opening period, Liverpool were causing increasing problems going forward as Shelvey consistently broke in support of Suarez.
There was a moment of controversy too as Agger headed the ball off the one hand of Gabulov and blasted the ball into the unguarded net. Rather than allowing the goal, the Danish defender was shown a yellow card.
With just a slender lead, Liverpool’s players and fans appeared to fear another collapse of the kind that occurred to fall to defeat against Udinese. The visitors certainly gave Liverpool some uncomfortable moments in the final 20 minutes.
Some neat link up play by the Dagestan outfit in the final third led to a Mbark Boussoufa shot that deflected wide of the near post.
With the threat of an Anzhi equalizer now growing, Shelvey, whose influence had diminished, was sacrificed for the more controlled talents of Joe Allen for the final 10 minutes.
The move could not prevent Anzhi from having their clearest opportunity of the match. Substitute Toure really should have grabbed an equalizer as he was found by Shamil Lakhiyalov’s low cross, but under pressure from Agger, he side-footed wide of the post.
The miss proved costly as Liverpool showed composure to see out what could prove to be a morale-boosting victory. In terms of the Europa League, Liverpool now sit top of Group A after Udinese’s surprise defeat to Young Boys.