Brendan Rodgers claimed Liverpool have "a fighting chance" of reaching the last 16 of the Europa League despite falling to a 2-0 defeat at Zenit St Petersburg on a night when fears of racist abuse from Russian fans proved unfounded.
Two goals in three minutes – from the Brazil striker Hulk and the substitute Sergei Semak – gave the Russian champions a convincing first-leg lead after Liverpool, and Luis Suárez in particular, squandered several chances to change the complexion of the tie.
Rodgers replaced Raheem Sterling with Lucas Leiva in the 78th minute when two goals down and he admitted the defensive move was made to prevent further damage and to preserve Liverpool's interest in Europe. "I made the substitution to make sure we stayed in the tie," the manager said. "There is another game to come and at 2-0 maybe you can retrieve something. But if we remained open and went to 3-0, then it could cost you. We know it is retrievable and we still have a fighting chance.
"I think we have a chance in the second leg and that the next goal will decide it. And what gives us great hope is that we created loads of chances tonight. The next goal is hugely important for us; if we can get that, then we can create great momentum at Anfield, where we know the fans will be fantastic. It's not over by any means. If we can get the next goal back then we can really put them under pressure with our fans behind us, and we have something to aim for."
Not for the first time this season Rodgers was left to rue a wasteful performance in front of goal. The visitors were without Daniel Sturridge and their new signing Philippe Coutinho as their former clubs, Chelsea and Internazionale respectively, are still in the tournament.
The manager added: "We are wondering how we've lost. It was one of those games where once we organised to stop [Zenit's] Hulk and Danny cutting in we looked solid and were a threat going forward. We could have led at half-time and we started the second half well, so I was thinking we could go on in the last 25 minutes to win the game.
"After that opening spell, when they had too much space, I thought it was a near-on perfect away performance. We had chances to score and should have been in front and we were defensively solid. So to concede the two goals in the last 20 minutes, especially the second one, was disappointing."
"The first was a good strike but we were poor in the build-up and the second was really poor from our point of view.
"So we've lost the game when really we should have won it and that's very disappointing. It is something where, in six or 12 months' time, we won't be making those mistakes. This is a group that is coming and growing together and this is part of our growing pains.
"We have to be more clinical and that is something that over the coming months will be put in place. But at the moment that's where we're at. We will at times lose games we should win because that is part of the process of growing together."
Rodgers declined to single out Suárez for criticism but admitted: "He could have had a hat-trick by half-time. It just wasn't his night but he's been brilliant for us all season."
The build-up to the match was dominated by Zenit's racist reputation and fears that Raheem Sterling, Glen Johnson and Andre Wisdom could be targeted. Liverpool's players had been advised at their final team meeting to report any instances of racial abuse to the Spanish referee, Carlos Carballo, but none materialised.
"I heard a lot about Zenit before we arrived," said Rodgers, "but I can only thank the club, the fans and the directors, for their hospitality and how we have been treated.
"There were no problems here at all, the game was played in a fantastic atmosphere and there was nothing at all, so on behalf of Liverpool football club I want to thank Zenit and their supporters."