SO MUCH for catching Zenit St Petersburg cold.
Instead it was Liverpool who were hit by a couple of sucker punches in Russia to leave them facing an uphill battle to retain their interest in the Europa League.
Fears that their last 32 first leg clash would be blighted by racial chanting proved unfounded. The atmosphere was predictably white-hot on the banks of the frozen Neva River but this was no gauntlet of hate.
In fact the only problems Brendan Rodgers’ side encountered were of their own making as they slipped to a painfully avoidable defeat.
Rodgers had urged Liverpool to take advantage of the fact that the Russian champions hadn’t played competitively for two months.
A rusty Zenit side were there for the taking but infuriatingly the Reds were unable to profit due to their wastefulness in the final third coupled with lapses in concentration at the other end.
Luis Suarez could have had a first-half hat-trick but some gilt-edged opportunities went begging. Liverpool paid a heavy price for their failure to get something tangible for their efforts as Luciano Spalletti’s men finished with a flourish – netting twice in the space of three hugely damaging second-half minutes.
Hulk’s stunning long-range effort broke the deadlock and then substitute Sergei Semak swept home the second.
The deficit isn’t insurmountable but Liverpool must show a ruthless streak which has been sadly lacking too often this season if they are to turn it around at Anfield next Thursday night.
From a position of real promise following the impressive performances against Arsenal and Manchester City, the harsh reality is that Rodgers’ side have now gone five matches without a win.
The manager had vowed to field a strong line up in a bid to keep Liverpool’s hopes of silverware alive and the Northern Irishman was true to his word.
There were just three changes following Monday’s league defeat to West Brom as Martin Skrtel, Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling were handed starts. Lucas Leiva and Jonjo Shelvey dropped to the bench, while Daniel Agger was left on Merseyside.
It meant skipper Steven Gerrard and top scorer Suarez started an away European game together for the first time since the play-off round win over Hearts in August.
The Zenit fans unveiled a giant banner before kick-off depicting a 19th century battle. They were vociferous but it was hardly the bearpit Liverpool had been warned to expect.
In fact there was a warm reception for Skrtel on his return to the club he left five years ago. However, those courtesies didn’t extend to the pitch where Zenit flew out of the blocks and pinned the Reds back.
Twice in the opening five minutes Rodgers’ men were indebted to Pepe Reina for keeping them on level terms. The Spanish keeper made a smart stop to parry away Russain international Aleksandr Kerzhakov’s strike after the Reds had made a hash of dealing with Hulk’s cross.
Skrtel then backed off, inviting Hulk to burst forward and the £43million Brazilian’s low drive was tipped behind by Reina.
In between those scares, Suarez left Zenit’s new signing Luis Neto trailing but dragged his effort wide.
With Liverpool defending so deep, they invited trouble at times and on a pitch which cut up badly from the start they struggled to retain possession. However, by committing so many players forward, Zenit left gaping holes at the back and the Reds should have capitalised in the 16th minute.
Suarez pounced on Nicolas Lombaerts’ sloppy error and found himself with only Vyacheslav Malafeev to beat.
The Uruguayan rounded the keeper but with the net gaping he over-ran the ball, allowing Lombaerts to get back and hack it to safety.
Having not started a league game for a month, this was Allen’s opportunity to force his way back into Rodgers’ plans.
But the £15million midfielder struggled to make an impression. Midway through the first half Allen was left on his backside as Hulk nonchalantly shrugged him off.
The Welshman’s blushes were saved by Jamie Carragher, who did brilliantly to anticipate the danger and nick the ball away before the striker could pull the trigger.
Just before the half hour mark Liverpool rode their luck once again. Axel Witsel was denied but Hulk’s shot beat Reina at his near post and struck the woodwork before squirming across the face of goal.
Having weathered the storm, the Reds continued to threaten on the counter-attack and five minutes before the break a glorious chance went begging.
Allen’s deflected cross was cleared by Akleksandr Anyukov but only as far as Sterling. The teenage winger picked out Suarez inside the six-yard box but his first-time flick flew agonisingly wide. Suarez couldn’t disguise his disgust with himself and it would prove costly.
Glen Johnson’s standards slipped in the defeat to West Brom but the full-back was much improved against Zenit..
Four minutes into the second half Johnson picked up possession close to halfway and drove forward. He cruised past a couple of half-hearted challenges and into the box but keeper Malafeev raced out to narrow the angle and made the block.
As the quality of their passing improved, Liverpool’s grip on the contest appeared to be tightening. Suarez worked tirelessly leading the line, keeping centre-backs Lombaerts and Neto busy and bringing team-mates into play.
A slick and sweeping move involving Suarez, Gerrard and Downing ended with Suarez’s right-footed curler drifting just past the post.
Zenit’s threat had diminished considerably but Hulk provided the inspiration with an unstoppable 69th minute opener.
The former Porto frontman picked up possession 25 yards out and unleashed a swerving drive into the top corner. That strike dashed Reina’s hopes of equalling Ray Clemence’s club record of 39 clean sheets in Europe.
Energised by the breakthrough, Zenit doubled their tally just three minutes later. The first goal may have been down to a piece of individual brilliance but the second was just rank bad defending.
Anyukov was allowed to cross from the right and Semak stole in unmarked at the back post to tuck it past Reina.
Suddenly, Liverpool were on the ropes and Rodgers responded by taking off Sterling and introducing Lucas in a bid to add some solidity in midfield.
The Reds could have halved the deficit late on but Suarez’s free-kick was turned away by Malafeev. Hope remains but it’s a long way back from here.
Zenit St Petersburg (4-3-3): Malafeev, Anyukov, Lombaerts, Neto, Hubocan, Witsel, Denisov, Shirokov, Hulk, Kerzhakov (Fayzulin 82), Danny (Semak 54). Not used: Zhevnov, Rodic, Lukovic, Evseev, Djordjevic.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Carragher, Enrique, Allen, Henderson, Gerrard, Downing, Sterling (Lucas 78), Suarez. Not used: Jones, Coates, Lucas, Borini, Shelvey, Suso, Wisdom.
Referee: Carlos Carballo
Goals: Hulk 69, Semak 72.
Bookings: Skrtel, Hubocan.