Brendan Rodgers’ first competitive match in charge of Liverpool got off to a winning start as the Reds beat FC Gomel 1-0 at the Central Stadion in Belarus.
Stewart Downing’s 67th minute piledriver gave them the important away goal to take to the second leg of the Europa League third round qualifier, but it was by no means smooth sailing for Liverpool, with the opposition proving difficult to break down, as well as causing some real problems at the back.
Brad Jones was forced to pull of a couple of decent saves, and Gomel midfielder Siarhei Kazeka smashed the ball against the post shortly before Downing’s goal.
Rodgers named a line-up that was slightly stronger than many expected for the qualifier, with Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Glen Johnson all starting.
In honour of his 700th appearance for the club, Jamie Carragher was given the captaincy over Gerrard for the evening, while Fabio Borini got his first start in a Liverpool shirt.
But things did not quite go as easily as Liverpool would have hoped, with the Belarusian side often threatening from outside the box.
In fact Gomel took just 2 minutes to register an effort, with Igor Voronkov firing just over from considerable range.
They continued to get in good positions throughout the first half, with Alexander Alumona shooting wide on 18 minutes after a twisting run in the box.
Liverpool struggled to get into any rhythm, and Gerrard in particular was guilty of giving the ball away several times in the first half an hour.
Rodger’s side looked rusty in possession, and were guilty of using the long ball far too much instead of building it up slowly. Nevertheless, a wonderful lobbed ball from Henderson nearly set Gerrard away in the box, only for the England captain to lose his footing at the crucial moment.
Things continued to go against the plan as Joe Cole limped off on 23 minutes with what appeared to be hamstring problem, to be replaced by teenager Raheem Sterling.
And with minutes to go until half time Alumona provided another scare when he shrugged off Skrtel to latch onto a long ball and forced a save from Brad Jones from close range.
Liverpool were clearly struggling to focus as the resultant corner was headed over by a completely unmarked Gomel player. Minutes later Carragher had to be alert to stop Alumona from turning a pull back into the net.
The half time whistle blew with FC Gomel very much looking the fitter, stronger and more dangerous side. The Reds were struggling to create and break down the Belarusians, and looked extremely sloppy on the ball and at the back.
Rodgers would have looked to improve massively on the first half performance, and made one change at the break, bringing on right back Martin Kelly for Glen Johnson.
But it was Gomel who threatened again, when striker Platanov eluded the defence to face Jones. Fortunately his touch was too heavy and Liverpool were let off once again.
Liverpool had picked up the pace however, and were beginning to look a little more threatening as Fabio Borini, who was left isolated throughout, got to the byline only to see his cross land in the hands of the goalkeeper.
Next, Steven Gerrard curled in a trademark free kick which caused havoc in the box, with a Gomel defender heading behind just inches wide of his own goal.
The two biggest moments came minutes later; the first when Kazeka, who led Gomel’s midfield well on the night, smashed a rasping left foot drive against the post, and Platanov scuffed the follow up wide after a fortunate rebound of Alumona.
The second came at the other end as Liverpool reacted to the scare with a moment of magic.
Stewart Downing, much maligned for his lack of goals last season, struck the first of the Rodgers era with a breathtaking drive from well outside the box. The winger cut inside a defender will a drop of the shoulder before sending his shot beyond the goalkeeper’s reach at the near post.
It was a goal worthy of winning the match, however Liverpool could hardly claim they deserved it.
However the goal did seem to give the players a boost, as did the return to action for Lucas Leiva. The Brazilian replaced Jordan Henderson just beyond the hour mark, with the young Englishman having provided a reliable, if not breathtaking performance.
Liverpool threatened again after the goal, with Raheem Sterling becoming more and more prominent on the left wing.
First the youngster did excellently to keep the ball in play before squaring to Borini, whose pass was centimetres away from putting Gerrard in.
Then Sterling embarked on a mazy run down the wing which saw him beat two Gomel players with blistering pace; however his cross was calmly dealt with by the goalkeeper.
Gomel appeared to be deflated after the goal, however the impressive Alumona was involved again as he hit a swerving shot into the side netting from outside the box with 4 minutes of added time remaining.
As stoppage time drew to a close, Fabio Borini had a rare moment of space as he raced onto a through ball, only to see his effort from a tight angle saved.
Victory puts Liverpool in a good position for the second leg at Anfield, however fans will be entitled to expect a bit more from the team with the Premier league season just around the corner.
Gomel 0 Liverpool 1 (Downing 67′)
Jones, Johnson (Kelly 45), Carragher, Skrtel, Enrique, Spearing, Henderson (Lucas 62), Gerrard, Downing, Cole (Sterling 20), Borini.