IT was a painful reminder of how European nights have changed for Liverpool.
On the big screens inside the Lokomotiv Stadium before kick-off the 300-strong army of travelling Kopites were treated to footage of the 2005 Champions League final triumph in Istanbul.
How the mighty have fallen. Having once become accustomed to competing with and beating the continent’s best, the Reds found themselves gracing Europe’s second tier competition with a second string side in front of a sparse crowd. It’s only three and a half years since Liverpool dished out a 4-0 thrashing to Real Madrid but it seemed a great deal longer on a bitterly cold Moscow night.
The outcome against Anzhi Makhachkala was painfully predictable as the Reds slipped to a defeat which dents their hopes of progressing from Europa League Group A.
The character and commitment of the youngsters and fringe players sent into battle couldn’t be questioned, but the lack of quality meant they embarked on the 1,600-mile journey home with nothing to show for their efforts after Lacina Traore’s solitary first-half strike.
Brendan Rodgers’ decision to rest so many ahead of Sunday’s trip to Chelsea was understandable.
The lack of depth at the manager’s disposal means it would have been folly to risk his big guns against the Russian big-spenders.
Rodgers has to prioritise the Premier League as that ultimately holds the key to Liverpool achieving their ambition of returning to Europe’s top table.
But the team sent out in Moscow was tasked with the equivalent of trying to scale the walls of the Kremlin, which Rodgers had visited in Red Square earlier in the day. Anzhi’s record of having never conceded a European goal in Russia still stands as billionaire owner Suleiman Kerimov celebrated the Reds’ scalp.
Brad Jones and Andre Wisdom were the only survivors from the Liverpool side which drew 1-1 with Newcastle in the Premier League last weekend.
There was a debut for Academy graduate Conor Coady in midfield with full-back Jon Flanagan making his first start of the season following his recovery from an ankle injury.
Striker Adam Morgan got his first taste of action since August’s qualifying round tie with Hearts as Rodgers fielded four teenagers.
The inclusion of Coady and Flanagan meant that no fewer than 30 players have featured in the Reds’ eight European games this season.
Liverpool were clearly set up to frustrate the hosts with three centre-backs – Wisdom, skipper Jamie Carragher and Sebastian Coates – flanked by wing-backs Flanagan and Stewart Downing.
Coady was tasked with offering protection in a deep midfield role and he rose to the challenge as he used the ball intelligently. The Reds were compact and well organised and for 45 minutes they frustrated the hosts.
There was a scare early on when Rasim Tagirbekov burst down the left but his low drive was easy for Jones. The keeper was then alert to the danger as he raced off his line to deny Traore.
Flanagan had his hands full up against former Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov but he was equal to the challenge.
It was a big night for the 19-year-old. This may have been his 16th first team appearance but it was his first taste of Europe and a first outing during Rodgers’ reign.
With Joe Cole playing off Morgan, Liverpool struggled to pose much of a threat on a difficult playing surface.
On his 31st birthday, Cole was fortunate to get another chance after being hauled off at half-time following his dismal display in the League Cup defeat to Swansea City a week earlier.
But needs must and part of the logic may have been putting him in the shop window considering Spartak Moscow’s interest in him back in the summer. The offers are unlikely to come flooding in.
For the most part Liverpool were sat deep soaking up pressure but they should have broken the deadlock with their first meaningful attack midway through the first half.
Morgan showed great strength to hold off the attentions of Zhirkov and then composure as he slid the perfect pass into Henderson’s path.
The midfielder had just Vladimir Gabulov to beat but inexplicably opted against shooting and his cut-back in search of Morgan was gratefully intercepted by Joao Carlos.
Anzhi had been surprisingly cautious in their defeat at Anfield a fortnight earlier but this time Dutch coach Guus Hiddink was more adventurous as he partnered Samuel Eto’o up front with Traore.
The £40million strike duo had plundered 25 goals between them already this season and as the game progressed their threat grew.
Jones was played into trouble by Coady’s heavy backpass but after a heavy first touch the shot-stopper was able to scramble the ball away.
Substitute Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez, who had replaced the injured Odil Ahmedov, blazed over when well placed.
Nine minutes before the break the Reds were indebted to Jones for keeping them on level terms.
Zhirkov raced past Wisdom and picked out Eto’o in the box. The £350,000 per week frontman’s strike was goal-bound before Jones tipped it over.
It was a fine save from the Aussie who impressed on his sixth successive outing – the best run of his Anfield career.
Liverpool appeared to have weathered the storm but they were undone in stoppage time by a piece of individual brilliance from Traore. There appeared to be little danger when the 6ft 8ins Ivorian international, who cost £16million from fellow Russian side Kuban Krasnodar back in June, latched on to a pass from Carcela-Gonzalez.
But Traore left Coates trailing with a classy flick over the defender and then dispatched an exquisite lob over the stranded Jones.
Early in the second half Morgan slammed a shot into the side netting from a tight angle but the Reds rarely looked like getting back on level terms.
Eto’o’s curling strike from the edge of the box was saved by Jones before Traore’s low left-footer whistled just past the post.
Just past the hour mark Rodgers made a double change as Coady and Morgan were replaced by Suso and Dani Pacecho. Suso’s impact after being handed a central role was instant as he added some much needed spark in the final third.
One sweetly struck strike from the young Spaniard was spilled by Gabulov but the keeper recovered to prevent Cole from netting the rebound.
Cole made way for Oussama Assaidi and Troare should have put the game beyond doubt.
Having planted a free header straight at Jones, Troare then wasted another glorious chance as he side footed wide with only Jones to beat. After Jucilei and substitute Fedor Smolov had gone close, Henderson could have levelled late on but he blazed over from Flanagan’s pull-back. Pride was in tact but no points.
ANZHI (4-4-2): Gabulov, Logashov, Samba, Joao Carlos, Tagirbekov, Boussoufa, Jucilei, Ahmedov (Carcela-Gonzalez 30 (Lahiyalov 90)), Zhirkov, Eto’o, Traore (Smolov 80).
Not used: Pomazan, Gadzhibekov, Agalarov, Burmistrov
LIVERPOOL (5-3-1-1): Jones, Flanagan, Wisdom, Coates, Carragher, Downing, Henderson, Coady (Suso 61), Shelvey, Cole (Assaidi 77), Morgan (Pacheco 61).
Not used: Gulacsi, Wilson, Robinson, Sama.
REFEREE: David Borbalan.
GOALS: Traore 45.
BOOKINGS: Flanagan, Shelvey.
NEXT GAME: Chelsea, away in the Premier League on Sunday (4pm).