After being frustrated for more than 80 minutes at Anfield, Mario Balotelli’s penalty gave Liverpool a slim but potentially pivotal 1-0 advantage to take to Istanbul for the second leg of their Europa League last 32 matchup with Besiktas. Having gone more than three months without a goal, Balotelli now has three goals in his last two appearances. And his effort on Thursday could prove to be every bit as important as his winner against Tottenham last week, although it did not come without controversy.
There was no debate as to the award of the penalty. Liverpool’s biggest threat throughout the contest, Jordan Ibe, finally got the rewards his efforts deserved when the man he had tormented throughout, Ramon clumsily brought him to the ground in the box. But that was plenty of discussion about who would take the spot kick. Captain for the night, in the absence of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson clearly felt the responsibility was his, but substitute Balotelli was adamant that he was the man to dispatch it. Given the Italian’s record from the spot, it was hard to dispute his logic. And he backed up his confidence by nervelessly waiting for the Besiktas goalkeeper to make his move before sticking the ball the other way with five minutes left on the clock.
Liverpool had got the right result, although the scrutiny that follows Balotelli’s every step will likely ensure that the events seconds before the winning goal get far more attention than the outcome itself. The fact that Gerrard, a television pundit for the night, chose to publicly criticize his teammate, will only add fuel to the fire. But Balotelli’s contribution ultimately puts Liverpool in a much stronger position to quality when they return to the same Ataturk Olympic Stadium where they famously won the Champions League a decade ago.
Two months on from their elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Basel, the idea of returning to continental competition in Europe’s secondary event may not have filled many of those around Anfield with enthusiasm in previous seasons. But this time around, the offer of a place in the Champions League, to go along with the prize of a first trophy of Brendan Rodgers’ reign, presents sizable allure.
That was reflected in Rodgers naming his strongest available lineup. There is a growing evidence that Ibe, on loan at Derby County for much of this season, now falls into that category. Again playing at wing-back, the 19-year-old enlivened Liverpool’s play whenever he got possession and he created the first chance when feeding Sturridge, who chose to shoot from a tight angle but could only fire against goalkeeper Cenk Gonen.
But Liverpool struggled to create opportunities in the opening half, with the closest they came to breaking the deadlock being a 40-yard pile driver from Alberto Moreno that required being helped over the bar. The hosts would have their own goalkeeper to thank for not being behind at the interval. The scorer of eight goals in as many European games for Besiktas this season, Demba Ba, just as he did for Chelsea to deny Liverpool the Premier League title last April, ran through on Simon Mignolet’s goal, but this time the Belgian pulled off the save.
Having escaped, Liverpool applied real pressure at the start of the second half, but just couldn’t force the ball home against a side well organized under former Everton defender Slaven Bilic. Adam Lallana missed the pick of the chances when somehow shooting over from point blank range after Gonen spilled a cross. The match then appeared to be drifting away from Liverpool in the latter stages, and there were even signs that Besiktas may snatch a vital away goal. Instead Ibe beat Ramon for the umpteenth time to give Balotelli the chance to become a controversial hero.