Relief for Liverpool came only from the terraces at Zenit St Petersburg. Fears of racist abuse from sections of the home support proved unfounded but the reputation of the Russian champions did not as they left Brendan Rodgers' team with a major task to preserve their final hope of silverware this season. On current form or, specifically, current finishing, one would not bet on another Anfield recovery in the second leg.
Luis Suárez was the chief culprit against Luciano Spalletti's team as he wasted enough chances not only to have given Liverpool a valuable away goal but a statement victory. With Daniel Sturridge ineligible, it was a similar story, and identical scoreline, to Monday's league game against West Bromwich Albion. Again Rodgers was left to applaud a Liverpool performance that ended in defeat. Growing pains, he calls them. Painful indeed.
Zenit are in the midst of a winter break but there were no obvious signs as they finished the stronger and, in the rampaging Hulk, had the quality and ruthlessness that Liverpool lacked. They were roared on by an impassioned crowd that, despite the pre-match focus on the racist element, jeered only Steven Gerrard‚ once‚ when he took a corner .
The Petrovsky Stadium proved more intimidating outside than in. Armed soldiers, military vehicles and 2,500 police lined the approach to the stadium, the surrounding river was frozen over and the pitch began cutting up badly during the warm-up. Liverpool had been asked not to train here on Wednesday night amid concern for the state of a playing surface that has been under cover for several weeks. They took a while to adjust to Spalletti's tactics.
Hulk, the buccaneering Brazil international, was prominent as Zenit cut through the centre of Liverpool's midfield too easily in the opening exchanges. Improvement in that department was key to the visitors' overall recovery. Glen Johnson blocked a shot from the left-back, Tomas Hubocan, in the opening minute and José Reina made a goal-line save to prevent Aleksandr Kerzhakov opening the scoring seconds later. The Liverpool defence received scant protection and Reina was forced into a superb save to his left following an incisive run in from the right by Hulk.
Rodgers' team almost scored with their first attack too, as Suárez latched on to Johnson's pass, beat his marker inside the area and then got past the goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev with a low shot to the far post, only to see the ball bobble inches wide. That may have been unfortunate but Suárez had two further, clearer opportunities to deliver a valuable away goal before the interval and finished unconvincingly on both occasions. The Uruguay international was presented with a one-on-one with Malafeev thanks to a blind pass across the Zenit defence by Nicolas Lombaerts. Suárez elected to go round the keeper rather than shoot but his touch was too heavy and gave Lombaerts enough time to redeem himself with a recovering challenge.
Five minutes before the break the Liverpool striker wasted a glorious opening after Joe Allen's cross deflected off Lombaerts and was collected by Raheem Sterling at the back post. Sterling squared to the unmarked Suarez four yards in front of goal but, when a simple finish was required, he sent an elaborate back-flick wide.
Liverpool closed the spaces available to Zenit as the first half progressed and curbed the impressive Roman Shirokov's runs from central midfield, although they remained vulnerable to Hulk's forays from the right. Jamie Carragher read one dangerous attack to take the ball from the Brazilian's toes inside the area and Zenit thought Hulk had provided the breakthrough when Reina parried his first time shot on to a post. The ball dropped on to the line, rolled along it and out. "No goal?" said the Zenit coach, Spalletti, to the fourth official. No goal was indeed the correct answer.
There was no disputing Hulk's next shot on target. With 20 minutes remaining, and Liverpool comfortable, Jordan Henderson was dispossessed in central midfield by Igor Denisov. The ball broke for Zenit's £50m signing from Porto, who cut on to his left foot and unleashed a stunning, swerving shot from 25 yards into the top corner of Reina's net. The Petrovsky erupted, Hulk sank to his knees in celebration and two minutes later Liverpool were in despair courtesy of an avoidable second goal.
Aleksandr Anyukov's low cross from the right evaded Kerzhakov and Martin Skrtel in the area and rolled through to the unmarked Sergei Semak. The Zenit substitute, left alone by Johnson, converted with ease at the back post.
It was all the more galling for Liverpool that Zenit struck when the visitors appeared to have control of the game. Malafeev had denied Johnson at the start of the second half and Suárez curled a decent opening wide before the Russian champions scored. Suárez also tested Malafeev from a late free-kick but, in keeping with the striker's night in St Petersburg, there was no way through as Zenit scrambled clear.