Istanbul: Turks Besiktas knocked Liverpool out of the Europa League on Thursday in a thrilling Istanbul clash at the scene of one of the English club's greatest triumphs, clawing back their first leg deficit and then winning on penalties.
Liverpool's players react at the end of the UEFA Europa League round of 32 second-leg football match Besiktas vs Liverpool at Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul. Pic/AFP
"It's a great feeling. It's a great night for our great club, for Besiktas. For Turkish football as well," said triumphant Besiktas manager Slaven Bilic. He added: "(We) definitely deserve it and we are so proud of our players."
With an estimated 70,000 Besiktas fans creating a cauldron-like atmosphere, Liverpool knew they faced a tough task on a balmy February evening at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, taking a slim 1-0 lead from the Anfield home leg in the round of 32. Besiktas levelled on aggregate in the 72nd minute with a stunning strike from Tolgay Arslan, assisted by a deft back heel from Senegalese striker Demba Ba, sending the match into extra time and then a penalty shoot out.
With penalties level at 4-4 and all the takers holding their nerve, Arslan skillfully slotted in. Dejan Lovren stepped up for Liverpool but his effort went high, leaving the player unconsolable and Besiktas fans running onto the pitch in joy. "We are disappointed for him (Lovren) as he had a good game. But someone had to miss and unfortunately it was him and us," said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
He hailed the atmosphere as "fantastic" but said: "Unfortunately for us, Istanbul has not been a happy place for us tonight." The stadium had special memories for Reds fans as the scene of the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final where the team famously pulled back a three goal deficit to defeat AC Milan on penalties. But Liverpool were this time without talismanic leader Steven Gerrard, who starred on that famous night in Istanbul but is still nursing an injury in his last season for the club.
"We did miss some of our creativity but it's no excuse," said Rodgers. Liverpool wanted to give Gerrard a fairytale send off with a glorious run in a European competition but the famously fanatical black-clad fans of the Eagles worked hard to raise the roof, with deafening whistles every time a Liverpool player touched the ball and dozens of flares burning in the Istanbul night sky. Banners raised on the stands included 'welcome to hell!", a favourite slogan from Turkish fans for visiting foreign teams.
'Great night for Turkey'
Helped on by the vociferous support, Besiktas pushed forwards in the early stages but were let down by some scrappy touches. Mario Balotelli, looking uneasy and clearly targeted by Besiktas, saw yellow in the 10th minute after a bizarre tackle which saw him upend Veli Kavlak. Besiktas searched for ways to provoke the volatile Italian, starting a game for the first time since November and he was substituted for Adam Lallana just before the end of normal time.
On 19 minutes Raheem Sterling forced an impressively acrobatic save from Cenk Gonen with a long range effort. In no way overawed by the occasion, Besiktas started the second half strongly with Simon Mignolet blocking a dangerous ricochet shot from Serdar Kurtulus. Arslan came close when a long range effort zoomed past Mignolet's left post in the 70th minute with Besiktas now looking much the more aggressive side.
But the midfielder then found the net in the 72nd minute, leaving Mignolet with no chance and sending an electric shock through the already pulsating stadium. If any team was going to score in the frantic last minutes of normal time it was Besiktas, with Ba rattling the crossbar in the final seconds off a Gokhan Tore corner to the despair of the local fans. Besiktas started extra time driving forwards as Ba tested Mignolet with another powerful shot. With Liverpool seeming to flag, Ba pushed a good chance high over the bar in the 25th minute of extra time before the game drifted into penalties.