If ever there were a time for the narrative to prevail for Liverpool Football Club, tonight would have been it. Unfortunately, the fates didn't quite get the memo as, ten years since their historic Champions League triumph, the Reds barely made a whimper and limped hopelessly out of their latest European voyage this season. Amid a raucous atmosphere, Liverpool were indeed welcomed to hell by the home support, but what would follow felt a whole lot more like football purgatory. While both teams had their share of fitness concerns, the news that Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho would miss the trip proved to be as decisive a blow as any, but the blame must be squared wholly to the mindless manager and his heartless servants.
A cagey opening to the game ultimately produced nothing of note, standard yellow card for a feisty Mario Balotelli notwithstanding. It took twenty minutes for the away team to mount any kind of attack, as Mario Magnifico cleverly played Alberto Moreno through with a deft flick, but the Spaniard was dispossessed upon his rampant foray into the opposition penalty area. The rebound, however, fell kindly for an opportunistic Raheem Sterling, whose half-volley was palmed away comfortably by Cenk Gönen.
Just as Liverpool seemed to threaten on the offensive, a series of calamitous touches and, in the curious case of Daniel Sturridge, elaborate and contrived flair led to chances squandered for the away team. Veli Kavlak somehow escaped the half without punishment, as his persistent fouling left the UEFA appointed referee unconvinced. The first half surely left Liverpool fans with more questions than answers, as even their sluggish buildup play should have produced at least a goal. To this point, Besiktas had rarely troubled Simon Mignolet and his gatekeepers, but how soon things would change.
The second half began on a similarly dull note, but faith was somewhat restored when Joe Allen unwittingly revealed himself as a viable set-piece specialist, which neither Martin Skrtel nor Dejan Lovren could fully take advantage of. The hour mark was begging Brendan Rodgers to make a change. Daniel Sturridge remained entirely ineffective and his midfield duo found themselves continually overwhelmed. The Northern Irishman, for all his qualities, refused to acknowledge this, let alone rectify it, until much later on. Besiktas, meanwhile, brought on playmaker Tolgay Arslan in an attempt to find a foothold in the game, and the move immediately proved to be a masterstroke. The German-born midfielder made an instant impact, culminating in his 72nd minute curling effort to level the tie.
All Liverpool needed was a reply and they had just under twenty minutes to muster one. An away goal would have surely proven too much for Besiktas overcome, but in truth, the Merseyside outfit still didn't seem all that interested in actually progressing to the round of sixteen. With neither Vladimir Smicer or Didi Hamann at his disposal, Brendan Rodgers opted instead to introduce Adam Lallana in the eighty first minute, a good half an hour too late for the skillful Englishman to contribute anything. Liverpool, out of ideas and ambition, fought for extra-time; an admittedly flawless strategy just days before hosting the reigning Premier League champions.
The remaining half an hour was ultimately nothing more than a spotlight for Demba Ba's innate obsession with breaking Scouse hearts. This time around, and thankfully not having to endure yet another haunting taunt from irrelevant opposition fans, he failed, and the game went on to a shootout lottery. To his credit, the former Newcastle and Chelsea marksman did take a pretty mean penalty. A week on from the scuffle between Jordan Henderson and Mario Balotelli, there would be no confusion when Rickie Lambert stepped up to the plate, mostly because neither Henderson or Balotelli were on the pitch. The diehard Liverpool fan converted his penalty with exuberance, a trait which enchanted most of his successors. Adam Lallana, Emre Can, Joe Allen and their Turkish counterparts all kept their heads and found the net, leaving the decisive kick to Dejan Lovren.
A lot has been made of Dejan Lovren's failed Liverpool career to date. His ability was never in question, but he's clearly a man low on confidence. To tackle the burden of taking the final penalty amongst the pressure of a knockout European tie is in itself daunting enough, let alone for a man in his position. His willingness and bravery should only be commended, but it didn't quite work out in the end. The towering Croatian defender skied his spot kick, and sent Liverpool crashing out of the Europa League at the first hurdle, but to pin the blame on his shoulders would be to ignore the other thirteen men involved tonight and the manager that led them. Not a single one of them can leave Istanbul with their heads held high, as Liverpool's imperious form comes to a bitter end.
What does that mean for the future? One less avenue back into the Champions League but with less distraction among a late surge towards the top four. Another European failure for Brendan Rodgers but hopes of silverware in the FA Cup remain. Manchester City travel to Merseyside on Sunday morning, while Liverpool look forward to ushering Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho, Mamadou Sakho and Steven Gerrard back into the fold. Not a single player covered themselves in glory tonight, and you might be left with a sour taste in your mouth, but the future remains very bright for this group of players and their fascinating but equally frustrating manager.