Liverpool 1 Balotelli 85 (pen.)''
Before the game, Brendan Rodgers claimed that Europe had not seen the true colours of his Liverpool side that struggled in a Champions League group with Real Madrid, FC Basel, and Ludogorets. A third-placed finish enabled Liverpool to continue playing in Europe, albeit in the continent's second-tier competition after the December to February break. Liverpool's form over the past two months has been heartening, and it was always going to be intriguing to see how a domestically successful 3421 formation fares in Europe.
Brendan Rodgers named a strong side with only one change, Jordon Ibe in for the suspended Lazar Marković, indicating that Liverpool would take all three competitions seriously. This lack of rotation could hurt Liverpool in the game with Southampton on Sunday, but perhaps the idea was to gain a considerable advantage in the home leg before travelling to Turkey.
The game overall didn't showcase the best of Liverpool, and underlined that Besiktas weren't the easy opponent that some previously thought. This was another European game this season where the greater organisation of middling European opposition troubled and stifled Liverpool more than it should have. Liverpool started the game with the necessary tempo and possession to force an early advantage. Jordon Ibe was a constant outlet for Liverpool on the right, and Adam Lallana's movement into various spaces ensured that there was plenty of vacated space for Ibe to run into if he desired to come inside. However, Ibe usually powered down the right, combining with Daniel Sturridge who sometimes took a touch too many when faced with opposition defenders.
The combination of Ibe and Sturridge troubled the visiting Turkish side, but Sturridge shot from a tight angle early on instead of passing when better options were available. Strikers are generally expected to strike at goal when possible, and Daniel Sturridge is one of the best in England. Still, one wonders what could have transpired in the rest of a somewhat cagey half if Liverpool took an early lead. The rest of the half featured some half chances but little of any considerable note or substance to work either goalkeeper. Demba Ba was put through on goal after 30 minutes on a counter attack, but didn't put enough on his shot to beat Simon Mignolet. It was nearly another taste of a Demba Ba through-on-goal-counter-attack-sucker-punch-against-the-run-of play special. Liverpool's defending on the subsequent corner wasn't too clever either, as the busy midfielder Kavlak exploited the space to flash a header wide.
The pitch invader was probably the highlight of the half and the second half continued without too much excitement. Adam Lallana missed a golden chance early in the half that was close enough to an open goal, Besiktas came more into the game enjoying some space down Liverpool's right side of the defence, and the game was not one of particularly high quality or tempo. Liverpool's passing midway through the second half was increasingly sloppy, and the defensive assuredness and control seen against Crystal Palace was absent. Besiktas had a few opportunities to punish the home side yet the right pass selection eluded the visitors.
Liverpool continued to play predominantly down the right with the impressive Jordon Ibe willing to run at opposition players at every opportunity. He was such a reliable and regular force for attacking good, and news of an imminent long-term contract extension appears to be excellent judgement. Ibe is here to stay as a prominent member of the first-team squad. Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana were busy with neat touches but didn't provide any incision in the final third. Alberto Moreno offered excellent balance on the left and continues to be an underrated component of this 3421 formation that has been one of the key features of Liverpool's improved form since December.
Dejan Lovren, Mario Balotelli, and Raheem Sterling were selected by Brendan Rodgers to come off the bench as Liverpool sought a late winner in the first leg of the tie. It came through a penalty won by man of the match Jordon Ibe as he was fouled in the area. Jordan Henderson wanted to take the penalty and was supposed to take it. Mario Balotelli wanted the chance to score with his confidence and expertise from the spot. Daniel Sturridge wasn't happy and remonstrated with his captain. Did he want to take the penalty? Mario Balotelli took the penalty. Mario Balotelli scored. Liverpool won the game. Steven Gerrard wasn't happy in the ITV studio and criticised his comrade in front of the cameras in a media capacity while still contracted to the club. Gordon Strachan agreed with Liverpool's club captain but thought Balotelli was clearly the best qualified person for the job. Peter Reid couldn't understand what the fuss was about. Matt Smith, known Liverpool fan and ITV presenter, was looking on in glee at this bit of telly gold.
So, there are a few areas to consider relating to the manager and his players. The manager's decision should be final, and as Balotelli contravened any decision made prior to the game, he should explain his actions to Brendan Rodgers. Balotelli and missing penalties don't usually go together, but what if they did this night? Mario Balotelli should be the next penalty taker after Steven Gerrard every day and twice on Super Sundays. Jordan Henderson should make decisions that he's satisfied with, and if he was comfortable enough to let Balotelli take the penalty, it's the captain's decision. This experience will be good for Henderson when he takes over as club captain in the summer. As for Daniel Sturridge, should he even be in the conversation for penalties? Steven Gerrard isn't the manager and probably shouldn't attempt to provide some sort of all-knowing judgement before his actual manager. Mario Ballotelli was "mischievous" apparently. Okay, then.
Liverpool won the game, it wasn't great, and move on to an extremely important Premier League trip to Southampton in the race for the top four. According to the statistics provided by opta, Mario Balotelli has scored 27 out of 29 penalties in his club and international career. If that isn't worthy of being second to an admittedly excellent penalty taker in Steven Gerrard, then a better decision needs to be made somewhere by someone. On to Southampton.