HEARTS were in mouths as Liverpool’s European future flashed before their eyes at the Stadio Friuli.
The faces may have changed over the years but the Reds’ habit of putting their fans through the wringer on continental missions remains.
Deep into stoppage time Antonio Di Natale had a golden chance to dump Brendan Rodgers’ side out of the Europa League, but Udinese’s talisman lashed his effort over the bar.
The Reds and their 1,100-strong travelling army breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Justice was done as the Italian job was completed. Rodgers’s men not only advanced to the last 32 but went through as Group A winners.
Young Boys’ 3-1 victory over Anzhi meant only maximum points would suffice and they were secured thanks to an unlikely hero.
Jordan Henderson has endured a turbulent first 18 months at Anfield but this was his finest hour.
The £16million midfielder paid back a chunk of that hefty fee with the sweetly-struck winner midway through the first-half.
It was only his third goal in 66 appearances for the club and his first since the league win over Chelsea at Anfield back in May.
Henderson rejected a move to Fulham in the summer as he vowed to stay and fight for a shirt. That battle remains ongoing but this was a hugely significant contribution.
Liverpool should have been out of sight long before Di Natale’s late miss, but a combination of poor finishing and a string of fine saves from ex-Reds keeper Daniele Padelli kept the game in the balance.
Ultimately, a professional, disciplined and composed display got its rewards and Rodgers’ first European campaign in management will stretch at least into February.
Udinese were out to restore some pride having seen their European hopes dashed by three successive defeats in Group A and they nearly achieved it.
The Bianconeri, who are ninth in Serie A, had ended a miserable eight-game winless streak in all competitions with a 4-1 victory over Cagliari last weekend.
Their triumph at Anfield back in early October had been a rare highlight in a season which had seen them leak 21 goals in their previous 10 matches.
Coach Francecso Guidolin handed a rare start to Padelli, whose brief Anfield career during a loan spell from Sampdoria consisted of one outing against Charlton back in May, 2007. His error-strewn display meant he was soon packed off back to his homeland.
Their 11-goal top scorer Di Natale started on the bench with one eye on Monday’s league game at Sampdoria.
Rodgers made five changes following last Saturday’s win over Southampton as Jamie Carragher, Henderson, Stewart Downing, Nuri Sahin and Suso were all handed starts.
Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger and Lucas Leiva had been left on Merseyside, while Raheem Sterling and Jonjo Shelvey were named among the substitutes.
It was hardly a cauldron the Reds walked into with the 30,000-capacity stadium three-quarters empty.
History was against Liverpool. Aside from finals, the Reds had won just two of their nine previous European games on Italian soil. They had also failed to score in seven of those contests.
Having not featured in the previous four Premier League matches, Sahin had the opportunity to stake a claim for more regular action. However, within 10 minutes the Turk’s night was over.
Left with a bloody nose after being caught by Mathias Ranegie’s arm, Sahin indicated to the bench that he was unable to continue and Shelvey replaced him.
Udinese’s competitive streak dismissed any suggestions they would simply roll over and Shelvey was soon the victim of a dangerous lunge from Diego Fabbrini which earned a booking.
The Italians started the brighter with Ranegie nodding narrowly wide. Roberto Pereyra then forced Pepe Reina into a decent save as he tipped his curling effort over the bar.
The Reds had barely threatened but they broke the deadlock in the 23rd minute. Luis Suarez’s header from Downing’s corner found Suso at the back post. The teenager played an intelligent lay-off to Henderson who drilled home from 12 yards.
That settled the nerves and just seconds later they had the ball in the net again, but Downing had teed up Glen Johnson from an offside position.
Fabbrini skipped away from Joe Allen, who had dropped deeper following Sahin’s early exit, and tested Reina from long range but the hosts’ early swagger disappeared.
The Reds increasingly dominated possession and secured control of the contest.
With Suarez wreaking havoc and Johnson rampaging down the right, they should have had breathing space before the interval.
Suso headed over from close range and then Suarez failed to hit the target from a tight angle after being played in by the young Spaniard.
In stoppage time, Suarez’s acrobatic overhead kick was brilliantly turned over the bar by Padelli after Udinese had failed to deal with Shelvey’s corner.
Liverpool carried on where they had left off in the second-half but chances were spurned.
Suarez’s energy and movement was too good for Udinese who resorted to foul means in a bid to stop him. After a surging run, the Uruguayan found Suso but with just Padelli to beat he lashed his right-footer high and wide. Suarez then failed to hit the target after the ball dropped kindly to him on the edge of the box. When Udinese did venture forward, they couldn’t find a way past the rock-solid defensive duo of Carragher and Martin Skrtel.
There was a scare on the hour when Ranegie rose to meet Giovanni Pasquale’s corner but his header sailed over.
The Reds were soon back on the offensive and only more heroics from Padelli kept the hosts in touch.
Henderson connected sweetly with Jose Enrique’s cross but his volley was expertly clawed away.
The keeper surpassed that moments later, somehow thwarting Suarez from point-blank range after the striker had skipped past two defenders.
Rodgers turned to Sterling as Suso made way and with 11 minutes to go the Reds were gifted a numerical advantage.
Having been booked earlier for hacking down Suso, Pasquale picked up a second booking for upending Sterling.
With Young Boys beating Anzhi, the Reds had no room to manoeuvre – one goal and they were out.
Udinese threw on Di Natale in search of an equaliser and he was inches away from providing it with the last kick of the game. The ball bounced up invitingly 10 yards out, but the veteran striker blazed over. Those passports can be tucked away until February.
UDINESE (4-2-3-1): Padelli, Faraoni, Heurtaux, Danilo, Pasquale, Badu, Pinzi (Benatia 46, Reinthaller 65), Pereyra, Fabbrini, Armero, Ranegie (Di Natale 86).
Not used: Brkic, Marsura, Berra, Frison.
LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Carragher, Enrique, Allen, Sahin (Shelvey 12), Henderson, Suso (Sterling 71), Suarez, Downing.
Not used: Jones, Cole, Assaidi, Coates, Wisdom.
REFEREE: Duarte Gomes (Portugal)
GOAL: Henderson (23)
BOOKINGS: Fabbrini, Suso, Pasquale, Allen, Carragher.
REDS CARDS: Pasquale (second booking)
NEXT GAME: West Ham United, away, Sunday, Premier League (kick-off 4pm).
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