A week may have already passed since last week’s Europa League drama at Anfield, but there has been no let up in the controversy that has followed the game. Whether it be Liverpool’s dramatic comeback or the antics of Luis Suarez, it was a game that so far, has been impossible to forget. While Zenit can look forward to a round of 16 tie against Swiss side Basel, Liverpool are left with bitter regrets after coming so close to pulling off a remarkable comeback against the Russian champions.
But it hasn’t just been the football that has proven to be the talking point. After the final whistle, many Zenit fans have called for Liverpool star Suarez to be banned from football until he can learn to play the game properly, after Suarez was spotted on camera stamping on the back of defender Tomas Hubocan, and earlier, deliberately hacking down Nicolas Lombaerts. Ultimately Zenit had the last laugh with progressing, but you can’t ignore the fact Liverpool came so close to cheating their way into the last 16 ahead of the Russians.
When the draw for the last 32 was made in December last year, it was straight away singled out as one of the ties to watch out for, two games that would capture the attention of not just Europe, but the whole of the footballing world. And not just traditional football fans decided to take a look, in my case even my whole family took to the TV to see how a club steeped in such tradition as Liverpool would cope against a Zenit side which has gained European pedigree only in the last few years.
And both games didn’t disappoint in the slightest. Not just the second leg at Anfield had all the thrills and spills of a typical old fashioned cup tie, the game in Saint Petersburg was no less enthralling. End to end football was the order of the day, and the controversial Suarez himself could of helped himself to a Russian hat trick. But instead it was Zenit’s Hulk who stole the show, unleashing a blockbuster of a shot to open the scoring on 69 minutes, and that was followed quickly by veteran Sergey Semak capitalising on some stilted defending to slot home.
That goal eventually ended up to probably be the killer goal in the tie, but it could have been so different. Liverpool created no less chances than their hosts, albeit mostly down to Zenit’s slack defending, but how the English outfit didn’t get at least one away goal still puzzles many two weeks after the game.
While the first game lacked in controversy, that was all about to be made up for in the second leg in Liverpool. Before the game Liverpool’s living legend and captain Steven Gerrard had publicly made a call for the Merseyside faithful to be even louder than usual given the daunting task facing the hosts, and they certainly paid attention to him. Anfield may always be a cauldron of noise even on the smallest of occasions, this was just something else. The incessant deafening shouts of the Kop were heard from the first minute all the way to the last, and almost just on voices alone did Liverpool turn over their Russian counterparts.
And yet for Zenit the evening started so well. Hulk capitalised on a loose back pass to finish calmly past goalkeeper Pepe Reina, and with that, the tie looked done and dusted. It proved to be anything but. Luis Suarez smashed home a free kick just 10 minutes later, and moments before half time Joe Allen squeezed the ball in to bring the hosts within two of progressing.
Just 15 minutes into the second half it was 3-1, a stunning Suarez free kick bring Liverpool within an inch of adding Zenit to their long list of comeback victims. But it wasn’t to be with Zenit holding out for the remaining half an hour to just about go through to the last 16, and a collective sigh of relief was felt all the way from Saint Petersburg. The real talking though had only just started.
Liverpool’s number 7 and Kop hero Luiz Suarez has always been in the thick of it. From that unforgettable deliberate handball against Ghana in the World Cup quarter final of 2010 to racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, he has never shied away from being in the spotlight.
And the game at Anfield encapsulated his career in just 90 minutes. In scoring two fantastic free kicks, in particular his second goal in the second half, he showed the whole world, just how much talent he has. On his day he is one of the most dangerous forwards on the globe and for 180 minutes he tormented the Zenit defence throughout, with the Russians in the end only just surviving.
To go with his remarkable and special talent though, he possesses the unwanted quality, of letting himself down horribly.
While on Russian soil he may not have done anything that appeared untoward, the game in England proved to be the complete opposite. His pure hunger and desire to win was obvious and that is only to be admired, but he was up to his old tricks again. Tripping up any Zenit player when he could, he then went a step further. In the lead up to Liverpool’s second goal, he hacked down the Belgian Lombaerts, an incident which forced Lombaerts off the pitch. And then came the most talked about moment, right at the end of the game.
With frustration rife amongst the Liverpool players, Suarez took it upon himself to rake his right foot on Tomas Hubocan’s back, an incident which was caught right on camera for the whole world to see. Somehow the officials missed the incident, and even more surprisingly, club officials at Zenit decided to not even follow up the incident with UEFA.
That hasn’t stopped Zenit fans venting their anger though, and it’s up for debate, whether such a player holds the right to be on the football field. No one doubts the talent that the Uruguayan star possesses, it’s on show just about every week for everyone to see. But such ‘tactics’ that he uses to try and win games illegally, shouldn’t be allowed to continue any more. UEFA themselves cannot follow up this most recent incident however as the referee for the night Björn Kuipers didn’t file the incident in his match report, but surely it can’t be too long before someone somewhere clamps down on such dirty tactics.
In any case, the only ones smiling come the final whistle were Zenit. The Russians survived a severe storm at Anfield and their reward is what should be a slightly less traumatic tie against Basel, and Zenit’s tag as one of the favourites for the Europa League trophy has surely only been enhanced after somehow surviving in one the loudest stadiums in Europe.
Even more pleasing however, is to see the back of Suarez for at least another European season.
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93
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