Mario Balotelli once again made the difference as a super sub for Liverpool in a 1-0 win over Besiktas in the First Leg of their Europa League Round of 32 match.
The Italian striker scored a late penalty against the Turkish club to give Liverpool a narrow but crucial lead to take to Istanbul next Thursday. Besiktas, carved in their coach Slaven Bilic's own rugged image, made life extremely difficult for the home side but were finally punished for never really getting control of Jordon Ibe.
The youngster gave another fabulous performance at Anfield, showing maturity beyond his years along with all the expected precocious confidence of youth. He tormented the Turkish left side all game and it was entirely fitting that he ended up making the run that helped decide this tight and often scrappy affair.
The Reds now know Besiktas will have to come out and attack a little more in the second leg and while there appears to be a number of tired bodies in Liverpool shirts, they have a decent chance of progressing to the Round of 16.
Player ratings(1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Simon Mignolet, 7 -- Yet more confident catching from the Belgian, who adds another clean sheet to his impressive recent tally. He exorcised one particular demon by standing up well to Demba Ba, unlike last April against Chelsea, and making a vital save to avoid a devastating away goal. Was largely a spectator in the second half.
DF Emre Can, 6 -- Another edgy and error-strewn display from a player who has excelled so often in the last two months. The usually ice-cool German appeared to be rattled, making some sloppy passes and lost his man during a corner which could have proved costly.
His manager wisely pushed him forward into midfield after the hour mark and once there he kept the ball moving well. Perhaps he is beginning to feel the workload of playing a lot of matches recently?
DF Martin Skrtel, 6 -- Seemed to have trouble with Ba early on but always able to recover, though Mignolet came to his rescue as the former Chelsea striker raced clear in the first half. More composed in the second half, although Besiktas seemed to settle for a goalless draw that never came.
DF Mamadou Sakho, 8 -- Still haunted by this myth of not passing well, he stood tall throughout the match. Decisiveness in the challenge, both in the air and on the ground, was added to an authority that few Liverpool centre halves have matched in recent seasons.
MF Jordon Ibe, 8 -- Not so much a wingback as an out and out winger for much of the match, young Ibe gave another storming performance. He was a constant thorn in Besiktas' side and just as he appeared to be tiring after 70 minutes, he still found one last wonderful run from somewhere to turn the tie Liverpool's way.
MF Alberto Moreno, 7 -- Anfield saw a little more of the marauding attacking play that the Spaniard was expected to supply when he was bought from Sevilla. Almost invisible at the start, he began making powerful runs which unsettled the Turkish defence. One excellent shot nearly gave the home side the lead in the first half and he also dug in strongly to protect the lead once it was secured.
MF Jordan Henderson, 8 - A very good display from the acting captain. It turns out he was actually the designated penalty taker but thankfully allowed common sense to prevail as the right player eventually took it in Balotelli. Good passing in the first half created some danger and though his touch was variable in the second half, he still showed enough energy to keep his team in the hunt.
MF Joe Allen, 6 -- Industry, pressure and sensible short passing. Did not really do much wrong but with his team needing a goal to take to Istanbul, Rodgers sought more dynamism in midfield from an advanced Can.
FW Adam Lallana, 6 -- Some good touches, though he could probably do more. A lack of confidence or fitness, perhaps even confusion with his position/role in the team is holding him back. He's clearly too good to be so uninvolved so often. Replaced on 77 minutes.
FW Philippe Coutinho, 6 -- Now starting to visibly tire, though it's obvious that opposition coaches are now giving him extra special attention -- most of it by the rulebook. The occasional good turn and run wasn't enough to stop Brendan Rodgers seeking a more viable option on the hour mark in Balotelli.
FW Daniel Sturridge, 5 -- Not one of the striker's best nights. Forwards need to be selfish but he was once too often and fans became impatient. Chose to shoot or hold onto the ball whenever passes were clearly available. Still feeling his way back to full fitness of course and he was often isolated against a solid defence. Just one of those nights. Thankfully, they are rare.
FW Mario Balotelli, 7 -- Another good cameo from the Italian. He showed great strength in the challenge and cleverly won some dangerous free kicks. He is after all quite an experienced player and is starting to show it at last. Coolness personified for the winning penalty, controversy over who was supposed to take it notwithstanding. Few fans wanted anyone else to take it.
DF Dejan Lovren, 6 -- Utilised to bring Can into the midfield, Lovren won a few headers but was booked within minutes and never looked fully composed. One or two reckless challenges might have proved more costly on another occasion.
FW Raheem Sterling, NR -- His arrival on 77 minutes to replace Lallana showed Rodgers' intent to get something from this match. Looked dangerous and might even have added an unlikely second goal if he'd received the right pass. He certainly wasn't what the Beskitas players wanted to see coming at them when it appeared they had already done all the hard work.