Udinese stunned Liverpool with three second-half goals to come from behind and claim a 3-2 victory in the Europa League at Anfield.
Liverpool looked on their way to victory after Jonjo Shelvey had headed them in front midway through the first half. But Antonio Di Natale changed the face of the contest with an equalizer seconds after the restart before two goals in three minutes courtesy of a Sebastian Coates own goal and a fine strike from Giovanni Pasquale put Udinese in the ascendency. Despite Luis Suarez’s quick response, Liverpool couldn’t find an equalizer.
Liverpool had elected to leave the likes of Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling on the bench, although manager Brendan Rodgers will doubtless feel his side should have taken at least a point.
In the early stages both sides came close to breaking the deadlock from set pieces. Sebastian Coates produced a fairly routine block from Zeljko Brkic before Mehdi Benatia’s header brought out an outstanding save from Pepe Reina as he dove at full stretch low to his right.
The first opening of note from open play came about after a rare threat from Fabio Borini, who showed some neat touches before dragging his shot wide from a challenging angle.
In the 23rd minute, Liverpool did break the deadlock. Shelvey laid the ball out to Stewart Downing in space on the right and the winger wasted little time in returning the ball to the young midfielder with a pinpoint right footed cross that Shelvey, unmarked, headed low into the back of the net.
The goal almost inspired the visitors into a quick response with a fine piece of invention. Di Natale received to ball out on the right of the box with little looking on and tried an audacious shot with the outside of his right foot that just evaded the angle of post and bar.
That effort had arrived courtesy of a misplaced pass in the opposition half form Joe Allen, a rare exception as the Welshman’s metronome-like passing helped Liverpool control proceedings after going ahead.
But, as has been the case too often for Liverpool this season, a sloppy individual error undermined much of their good work.
Straight after the restart Glen Johnson gave the ball away midway inside his own half allowing Udinese to pounce and before Liverpool knew where they were the ball was in the back of their net. Roberto Pereyra found Di Natale who played a superb one-two with half-time substitute Andrea Lazzari on the left before placing a first time shot past Reina from just inside the area.
The goal had given Udinese belief and they were instantly more positive than during the first 45 minutes.
By the 65th minute, Rodgers decided it was time to reach for his high profile reserves as captain Gerrard and weekend hat-trick hero Suarez came off the bench. The substitutions almost had an instant response.
Downing’s free-kick from right traveled all the way to the back post and Suarez, who adjusted his body to fire a half volley across goal that was heading for the back of the net before striking the boot of Shelvey a yard from the line.
Clearly feeling remorse for his unfortunate intervention, Shelvey and Liverpool’s woe was compounded as Udinese immediately scored a quick-fire double. Lazzari again had an influence as his in-swinging free-kick caused all sorts of problems for Liverpool, and Coates, who had tested the opposition goalkeeper at the same end in the first half beat Reina with a header from six yards out.
Less than two minutes later, Liverpool, who had looked so in control in the first half, found themselves 3-1 behind.
The opening arose from a long ball over the top that Di Natale took down exquisitely and juggled to keep away from the defenders before laying it back to Pasquale on the left corner of the box who drilled a shot into the far corner.
The match had now exploded into a frenetic end-to-end pace and Liverpool waited just three minutes before halving their deficit.
Suarez showed the crucial special quality he brings to the Liverpool side once again with an unstoppable free-kick from 20 yards out slightly to the left that whipped the ball over the wall and into the top corner.
The action showed no sign of relenting and Suarez came close to getting a second. The Uruguayan’s header at the back post went straight at Brkic who couldn’t hold onto the ball and a goalmouth scramble ensued before Udinese eventually cleared.
Suarez’s positive impact continued as he forced Brkic into a solid diving save at his near post with a powerful drive with just over five minutes remaining.
Fellow-substitute Sterling had a shot blocked when he looked certain to score, before curling over after cutting in well from the left, but Liverpool couldn’t find an all-important third goal.
The result leaves the Reds third in Group A behind Anzhi Makhachkala and Udinese.