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Feb, 21, 2013

Liverpool's comeback falls short

A Jamie Carragher error ultimately proved costly as Liverpool was edged out of the Europa League despite a fine comeback against Zenit St Petersburg.

The veteran defender, making his 150th -- and now last -- European appearance, gifted Zenit's star forward Hulk a goal that gave the Russians a 3-0 aggregate lead early in the second leg of the last-32 tie.

Liverpool responded as top scorer Luis Suarez fired in two free kicks and Joe Allen struck from close range but Hulk's vital away goal prevented another memorable Anfield fightback, 3-3 on aggregate.

Liverpool's history is littered with stirring tales of European recoveries and the crowd longed for another to breathe new life into an inconsistent season.

"I'm very proud of the club and the players," manager Brendan Rodgers said. "I think, even though we lost the tie, the football club and players showed they are part of probably the world's greatest football family.

"To have to come back from a three-goal deficit and put that effort and quality into the game, it was an absolutely phenomenal show. I don't think the players could have done any more, the crowd certainly couldn't have done any more."

The hosts went into the game with plenty of noise behind them and they looked determined to feed the atmosphere with the goals they required.

Rodgers' men were positive from the outset with Suarez, once again the main attacking focal point in the absence of the ineligible Daniel Sturridge, looking lively.

Suarez attempted to get behind the defence at every opportunity and almost got in on goal from a Jose Enrique long ball but he could not control it.

Jordan Henderson won possession on the left but shot straight at Vyacheslav Malafeev from distance and Steven Gerrard lined up a free kick only to blaze over.

Yet Zenit had no intention of sitting back on their advantage and there was a warning for Liverpool as Danny broke through and Carragher came across to block his run.

Carragher also made another timely interception but the Liverpool veteran had nowhere to hide after the 19th-minute blunder that gifted Zenit the opener. The 35-year-old was under little pressure when he miscontrolled a speculative pass into the Liverpool half, but Hulk quickly seized on the ball.

Hulk, who also scored in the first leg, raced through on goal and fired past Jose Reina with conviction.

Rodgers sympathised with Carragher, whose recent form had been outstanding.

He said: "There is no blame. It is probably the first mistake I have seen him make since I came to the football club, and that includes every game in training. I am disappointed for Carra. He is a brilliant professional and deserved to go into the next round and play again, but unfortunately it is not to be."

The away goal left Liverpool needing to score four times to salvage the tie and they needed a quick response.

They got it as Daniel Agger burst forward from deep and was felled on the edge of the area by Nicolas Lombaerts.

Zenit sensed the danger and did its best to delay the free kick. Referee Bjorn Kuipers eventually tired of the capers and booked Igor Denisov. Suarez made Zenit pay further by blasting the set piece through the wall and into the net.

The crowd was reignited and Gerrard won another free kick in dangerous territory moments later, but Aleksandr Anyukov headed the captain's set piece behind.

Hearts were in mouths when Reina miskicked with Hulk again threatening, but the goalkeeper recovered and Liverpool tried to build again.

There were further scares when Danny chested down a Hulk cross and volleyed narrowly wide, and Anyukov also hit the side-netting, but the Reds grabbed another before the break.

Enrique found space down the left and exchanged passes with Henderson before crossing from the byline for Allen. Allen's initial header was parried by Malafeev, but the Wales midfielder followed up to hook home.

Liverpool carried the momentum into the second half and had a strong appeal for a penalty turned down when Tomas Hubocan appeared to handle after Suarez won a header.

"I don't think there was any doubt, especially when you have got an official behind the goal looking clear at it," Rodgers said.

Suarez played on and blasted narrowly wide but Liverpool made its feelings clear to Kuipers soon enough.

It did not dent the enthusiasm and Zenit found it increasingly difficult to hold the Merseysiders back.

The next breakthrough came just before the hour after Suarez was fouled by Roman Shirokov outside the box.

Suarez and Gerrard stood behind the free kick but it was the Uruguayan who again stepped up, curling an inch-perfect shot into the top corner.

That increased the noise level yet further but there was another warning for Liverpool when Hulk flashed a free kick wide after substitute Jonjo Shelvey was booked for a crude challenge.

Another substitute, Oussama Assaidi, made a more positive contribution before being pulled back on the edge of the area.

Suarez fancied a hat trick of free kicks but his effort was beaten away by Malafeev.

Gerrard produced an acrobatic effort to get a shot on target from an awkward bouncing ball but Malafeev, who had pushed the ball in his direction, recovered to save again.

At the other end, Reina saved well from Hulk and Liverpool attacked again with Shelvey firing wide.

Liverpool kept up the pressure until the end, with Reina going forward for a late corner, but it was not to be and Zenit will now face Swiss side Basel in the next round.

Information from Press Association was used in this report.

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