Liverpool secured a safe passage into the group stage of the Europa League after grinding out a 2-1 win over Trabzonspor in Turkey as Roy Hodgson became the first Reds boss since Bill Shankly to win his first four European games in charge of the club. The home side could not have wished for a better start as Teofilo Gutierrez converted inside the opening three minutes to void Ryan Babel’s first-leg Anfield winner of one week ago.
Trabzonspor dominated the opening 45 and should have perhaps furthered their lead through captain Ibrahima Yattara, who was guilty of spurning an inviting headed opportunity. Liverpool were much improved after the break, though David Ngog headed well when he perhaps should have found the back of the net with an unmarked header from inside the six-yard box.
However, their renewed vigour was rewarded when Remzi Giray Kacar put Glen Johnson’s cross through his own net before Dirk Kuyt tapped home a winner with just seconds to spare to ensure the Reds’ European adventure will continue this season and help Hodgson equal a milestone set by Shankly over four decades ago.
Liverpool touched down in Trabzon on Wednesday afternoon minus a clutch of regular first-team stars as the likes of Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger, Maxi Rodriguez, Milan Jovanovic and Danny Wilson were all left behind on Merseyside for fitness reasons.
But the Reds’ ranks were boosted by the return of Joe Cole, who despite being in the midst of serving a three-match domestic ban, remains eligible to compete in Europe. He was joined in Hodgson’s starting XI by Christian Poulsen, while there were also berths for Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Fabio Aurelio and Martin Kelly as the boss made five changes to the side that went down at Manchester City on Monday.
Much of the talk around town in the countdown to kick-off had centred on Trabzonspor’s 1-0 home triumph against a Reds side boasting legendary stars such as Ray Clemence, Tommy Smith, Emlyn Hughes, Kevin Keegan and John Toshack some 34 years ago.
Liverpool ultimately had the last laugh on that occasion, running out comfortable 3-0 victors in the return meeting at Anfield en route to lifting the European Cup for the first time in Rome.
However, supporters of the Maroon-Blues filtered into the Huseyin Avni Aker Stadium with their hopes of achieving another upset buoyed by a dogged first-leg showing in L4 last week – optimism which transmitted itself into a barrage of noise as the two teams finally entered the arena.
And the decibel levels went up several further notches when Gutierrez fired the home side into a third-minute lead, with the striker diverting Gustavo Colman’s shot-turned-cross beyond Pepe Reina from yards out after Dirk Kuyt had conceded possession deep inside the Reds half.
The goal confirmed Trabzonspor’s early dominance as the heavens opened in northern Turkey – though the downpour did little to dampen the spirits of the home support and Jamie Carragher was required to produce a trademark block to deny Ibrahima Yattara a clear strike on goal.
The resulting corner worked its way to Gustavo Colman, whose well-struck effort needed to be diverted around the base of the post by a fully-extended Reina.
Trabzonspor should have assumed control of the tie for the first time on 22 minutes as they continued to press, with captain Yattara guilty of heading wide when well positioned at a set piece.
Liverpool could only hope such profligacy would later come back to haunt the hosts, with Glen Johnson’s disallowed strike for offside serving as a reminder that an away goal for the Reds would turn the complexion of the tie on its head once more.
It also allowed Hodgson’s contingent to begin to impose themselves on the contest and, as the game edged towards half-time, the visitors enjoyed their best spell of the night so far – though Lucas Leiva’s tame effort at goal was all they had to show for their endeavour.
The lively manner of the opening 45 continued into the start of the second period as Cole failed to connect properly with Kuyt’s searching cross while, at the other end, Burak Yilmaz drilled wide after being played into space inside the box, though the Trabzonspor forward was offside.
Nonetheless, Liverpool should have levelled through Ngog six minutes after the restart, but the French starlet spurned a glorious opportunity by contriving to nod Cole’s deep centre the wrong side of the post when unmarked five yards from goal.
The striker then crafted another fine chance moments later, weaving his way through the Trabzonspor rearguard only to drag wide of the upright when faced with Kivrak.
The Reds were certainly carrying more threat to their play in the second half a deflected free-kick from Fabio Aurelio had Kivrak scurrying across his line before narrowly evading the post.
But, with extra-time looming, Johnson’s enterprising run into the box saw the full-back’s cross put through his own net by Remzi Giray Kacar under pressure from Cole and Ngog.
And it got even better for Liverpool with just two minutes left on the clock as Kivrak failed to hold onto substitute Dani Pacheco’s shot, allowing Kuyt to tap home and secure a memorable win.