Albeit a fairly unconvincing one. Regardless, Liverpool's season and Brendan Rodgers' tenure as boss start with a win in Belarus, as a Stewart Downing strike from twenty-five yards proved to be the difference. The hosts were arguably the better side for most of the night and had a number of terrific chances go begging, but in the end Liverpool will head back to Anfield with the advantage for the second leg.
Liverpool 1: Downing 67'
With no news prior to the match about who actually traveled--most of our knowledge of who made the trip came from the offal's picture special yesterday--the starting eleven was always going to be something of a surprise. It wasn't all to shocking once announced, though, with a very safe and experienced eleven selected by Brendan Rodgers in his first competitive match. The back line was one that could have featured at any point last season, likewise with the midfield, and Fabio Borini proved the only new or intriguing face in attack.
They conspired to produce an absolutely atrocious first half display, with Gomel far more effective in possession and Liverpool seemingly content to recycle possession in a manner we'd have expected under Roy Hodgson. Steven Gerrard was a major culprit from a more withdrawn role; of the two veterans I wouldn't have guessed that Jamie Carragher would have been more amenable to Rodgers' philosophy, but early on tonight it was Carragher keeping the ball and Gerrard spraying it into green and white shirts. That he was preferred to Jonjo Shelvey, especially for the full 90, was disappointing, even if time for Shelvey was knocked back by the need to substitute Joe Cole.
Gerrard wasn't the only poor performer in the midfield, with Jordan Henderson completely anonymous further forward and Jay Spearing providing nothing but giveaways. In a half full of errors and bad displays, Spearing stood out as a liability both with and without the ball. That served to isolate Borini terribly, leaving the Italian to do much of the work on his own up front as Cole came off injured and Stewart Downing forgot how to turn left.
There were a few nice set pieces delivered by Gerrard, one of which was flicked towards Gomel's goal by Borini, but otherwise it was the home side doing most of the pressing, and were it not for Brad Jones--and their own profligacy--they'd have taken a one- or two-goal lead into the break.
The second half was much the same, with Gomel coming close and Liverpool looking lost. They very nearly went down a goal after another Jay Spearing giveaway, this time with Sergey Kozeka curling one off the post and Dmitry Platonov shanking the rebound. The brightest point for Liverpool came immediately afterwards with the introduction of Lucas for Jordan Henderson on 66 minutes, as Rodgers' side desperately needed some sort of foundation moving forward.
His presence quickly improved the quality of Liverpool's possession but admittedly had nothing to do with Downing's winner--like we'd seen so often last season (to very little effect), Downing dribbled in from the right flank to find space and unloaded from distance. Unlike last season, however, this one flew past an opposition goalkeeper that had been very good on the day, with Vladimir Bushma only able to get his fingertips on the strike as it crashed into the net. All of a sudden, last season's narrative was on it's head. Liverpool had less possession and never looked like scoring while Gomel created all the chances, but the lead was theirs.
It was fairly easy sailing for Rodgers' squad from there, and they almost had a second through Fabio Borini were it not for more good work from Bushma, who forced the Italian wide and then made a good save to kill the effort. On the whole it had to be a frustrating night for Borini, who worked tirelessly and had very little support, but his movement and workrate were plenty encouraging. We saw more of the Liverpool we expected after they took the lead, which, you know, you'd expect, and a win despite a fairly drab performance is more than welcomed.
Given that it's essentially still the preseason there's little reason to harp on the individuals more than I have already. Steven Gerrard's nowhere near match fit, and neither were a decent handful of the rest of the squad. There's definitive holes in the squad that need addressing, and the solutions aren't coming from within the collective that Brendan Rodgers currently has. That's worrisome, as was the tendency to hoof rather than actually play football. But it's early, and you got the impression that Rodgers was none too pleased. And I think each of Brad Jones, Jamie Carragher, and, even though it was for less than half an hour, Lucas are worth pointing out, with the latter completely changing Liverpool's overall demeanor with his presence and composure. Stay healthy, please. Forever.
The break in the schedule will give us some time to linger on this one a bit longer than usual, but for now let's at least try to enjoy that Liverpool are up and running, and in prime position to advance in Europe. Might not have been pretty, and at times it was more frustrating than it was enjoyable, but it's meaningful football, and there's plenty more to come.