Cole shines but problems remain
For Joe Cole, there was redemption of sorts. But for Brendan Rodgers, there was only frustration. Just when it looked as though Liverpool would qualify for the Europa League knockout stages with a game to spare, Young Boys hit back to deny them.
Thanks to Elsad Zverotic's 88th minute equaliser, the Swiss side may yet deny Rodgers' side a place in the last 32 altogether. If Young Boys win their final Group A game at home to Anzhi Makhachkala on December 6, then Liverpool will have to beat Udinese in Italy to qualify. The route to European survival has suddenly become a whole lot more complicated for Rodgers.
Cole, though, could at least look back on the night with a degree of satisfaction. He set up one goal for Jonjo Shelvey and scored another himself, his first for the club since April 2011.
The finish was a smart one, slotted in on the turn in front of The Kop after Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard had combined to set up the chance. Cole celebrated as if it were a title-winning goal.
After a wretched start to the season, hampered by injury and ineffectiveness, it was a goal he needed badly. On his last Anfield start, against Swansea in the Capital One Cup at the end of October, Cole turned in a display of such ineptitude that he was hauled off after 45 minutes, and many observers questioned whether he would ever play for the club again.
This performance was certainly an improvement, and he was substituted to a standing ovation with a quarter-of-an-hour to go, although Rodgers was not getting carried away with the performance of a player with an uncertain long-term future at Anfield.
"He's still not 100% because of the number of games he's played," the manager said. "He was much better in the offensive part of his game. He was clever, he was bright, he was in between people."
Rodgers, who made seven changes to the side that beat Wigan 3-0 in the Premier League last Saturday, was happier to praise Shelvey. The midfielder operated in a false nine role for the first hour before dropping back once Suarez came on.
"I thought young Jonjo did extremely well," Rodgers said. "He was causing them problems with his movement."
It was Shelvey who opened the scoring after 33 minutes, nodding into an empty net after Cole had played a delightful one-two with Suso and lifted the ball across goal over advancing keeper Marco Wolfli.
And it was Shelvey's contributions that were key to Liverpool's best first-half moments, with one nicely-timed pass sending Cole away to fire an early shot across goal, and another neat flick that sent Jordan Henderson through for a chance that Wolfli blocked. But to suggest that Liverpool dominated would do great disservice to a Young Boys side who have recovered well from losing their opening two games in Group A.
A 5-3 defeat at home to Liverpool in September, followed by a 2-0 loss away to Anzhi Makhachkala in early October could easily have finished their qualification hopes. Home and away victories over Udinese revived them, and they started at Anfield as if intent on a third successive victory.
Gonzalo Zarate, a scorer against Liverpool in September, volleyed over inside the first 15 seconds. Raul Bobadilla and the lively Christian Schneuwly had decent efforts on goal inside the first quarter-of-an-hour.
Rodgers brought on Gerrard after half-an-hour for right-back Andre Wisdom, who was carrying a minor knee injury, and Liverpool gradually got on top. But if they thought Shelvey's goal would end the Swiss challenge, they were mistaken.
Alexander Farnerud and Zverotic had already whizzed long-range shots narrowly off-target early in the second half when Bobadilla equalised with a stunner. Henderson, who slotted in at right-back with Wisdom off, might have done better to track the Argentinian striker's run as he collected Farnerud's 40-yard cross-field pass. But Bobadilla's finish was superb, as he controlled the ball on his thigh before hammering a shot past a helpless Pepe Reina.
The introduction of Suarez raised Liverpool's tempo, as it invariably does, and Cole's goal was reward for their pressure.
But it wasn't enough. After a promising attack broke down, Rodgers' side where far too slow to get back to cover the counter-thrust. Zverotic thumped his first goal for Young Boys into the top of the net, and the 2,500 travelling fans went wild. So too, in a different sense, did Rodgers.
"We get the chance to shoot at one end of the field, and then at 87-and-a-half minutes, we're walking back," said the Liverpool manager. "I think Oussama Assaidi has a go, but then they walk their way through to the edge of the box unchallenged, and the strike comes from the centre of the goal. It's a disappointing goal."
A disappointing goal; ultimately, a disappointing night. The frustration for Rodgers was that it was so close to being so much better.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Jonjo Shelvey. Asked to play in a forward role with Luis Suarez on the bench, Shelvey's runs and passes caused all sorts of problems for Liverpool's opponents. His goal was deserved for his efforts.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: A team with plenty of attacking promise once again showed an infuriating ability to switch off defensively when it really matters. Young Boys' two goals were well taken, but preventable. Rodgers will feel his side should have qualified from Group A by now. As it is, they may well not qualify at all.
YOUNG BOYS VERDICT: Martin Rueda's side have won just one of their last seven games in the Swiss league, but are becoming the surprise package of Group A. They were positive from the start, came with a belief that they could win and deserved their draw. Their supporters were classy, too. Midway through the first half, they unfurled a banner which read 'In Memory Of Hillsborough'. It drew applause from around the ground.