LIVERPOOL v ATHLETIC
1st Knockout Round Leg 1
Starting XI - Jones; Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Moreno; Lucas, Allen, Henderson, Sterling; Balotelli, Sturridge
Bench - Ward, Flanagan, Coutinho, Borini, Gerrard, Enrique, Lovren
Starting XI - Iraizoz; Iraola,José , Gurpegi, Balenziaga; Beñat, Itturaspe; Susaeta, Aketxe, Gómez; Viguera
Bench - Etxeita, Aurtenetxe, Rico, Moran, Muniain, De Marcos, Aduriz
Athletic Bilbao traveled to Anfield for the first leg of their 1st Knockout round tie against Liverpool, on mixed form after the start of the year. The Basque team have won 4 and lost 4 since their first game of 2015 against Deportivo and are looking to finish in the top four in the league so that they can have another go at this competition next season, aswell as giving it a good go this campaign. Liverpool, on the other hand, have been superb since their 5-0 drubbing of Tranmere Rovers taking them into 2015. Since then they have only tasted defeat once after a shock 1-0 defeat away at Sunderland. There was no doubt who was favourites to qualify from this tie.
Liverpool opened up the game strongly with a few opening chances early on and in the sixth minute the hosts struck first blood. A nice one-two starting with Balotelli, moving to Henderson further inside the pitch, then back out to the troublesome Italian who found Sturridge making a dart into the penalty area. Sturridge looked up to see Gorka Iraizoz bolting off his line and the striker neatly tucked the ball underneath the charging Spaniard and into the back of the net.
For the majority off the first-half, the play was similar to the start. Liverpool kept hold of the ball and created chances. Athletic's luck came through a few times as Sturridge and Balotelli both missed clear chances to double the Liverpudlians lead. The best chance to widen the goal gap, however, fell to Sterling as the young star blasted the ball wide of the post when he really should have hit the net. The frustration in the 20 year-old was clear as he fell onto his knees and took his wrath out on a piece of cut-up turf.
Quique Flores must have been thanking the gods that his team was only one down at half-time and the Spaniard made two changes to his side for the second-half. Striker Borja Viguera was replaced by Aritz Aduriz and winger Ibai Gómez was swapped for highly-rated youngster Iker Muniain. Liverpool made no changes as Brendan Rodgers looked towards keeping the game going as it had the first-half.
Straight from kick-off the second-half looked as if it was going to be much more even than the first. Muniain looked lively as he made a dart down the wing and found Aketze just outside the box but Ager could not keep his following shot down. In the fiftieth minute Athletic found themselves on the counter with Iker Muniain, the winger crossed the ball over the other side of the pitch half-way into the opposition territory and Suseata continued the advance. Weaving into the box Markel found himself being crowded out by Sakho and Moreno but he managed to throw a weak ball into the box. Despite how slow it was crawling across the box, Ager Aketze found himself latched onto the ball and he slammed it past Brad Jones and into the far-left hand corner to pull his team back into the tie.
Just three minutes later and the following Basque support in Anfield were in dreamland. A Beñat free-kick from just outside the box was scrambled back out from scruffy defending, straight to Aketxe. Ager found Mikel San Jose, who was falling back just next to him. San Jose looked out wide towards Markel Susaeta and the winger smashed a cross in towards Aritz Aduriz, who managed to turn his large physique in time to push the ball past the keeper with his head. Athletic hadn't just equalised, they had managed to take control of the tie.
In true spirit, the Basque players didn't step back and defend what they had, they pushed out and kept their attacking presence. This was proving well for them until late on in the game. Bilbao were caught with too many men up trying to put the game to bed and Daniel Sturridge thread a past Mikel San Jose, who had found himself completely isolated with no back-up, into Sterling who powered the ball past an outstretched Iraizoz to bring the game back level.
From this point on, the game was incredible. The ball was up and down the pitch as both teams desperately wanted the lead going into the second leg. Deep into stoppage time Liverpool thought they had managed to drag themselves to victory as Sturridge blasted a ball through a crowded box, however the ball took a wild deflection and slammed off the post and into the feet of Itturaspe. Ander looked up and blasted a hopeful ball up field trying to start a counter, and it worked. Muniain picked the ball up and found that he was joined up with Aritz Aduriz, outnumbering Sakho's one man wall. Iker ran at Sakho before posting the ball past the Frenchman and into the path of the lanky Spanish striker, one-on-with the keeper. Aritz managed to fake one way and he fooled the Aussie keeper as he slotted it down completely the other side to give Athletic the lead again with the last kick of the game. The Spaniards celebrated the goal as if they had just won the competition and you could hear the supporters from the docks. Athletic were taking a lead back to San Mamés!