LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – What happened in St. Petersburg a week ago felt like Liverpool's season in microcosm. Liverpool was good for long spells. On a bumpy pitch just recovering from the winter it passed the ball neatly. There was zip and invention to its play. It created chances and it wasted chances and then finally Hulk lashed one in from 25 yards to give Zenit the lead. Three minutes later, a moment of sloppiness resulted in the eternal Sergei Semak adding a second, and a tie in which Liverpool could easily have had a decisive lead became one in which it will take an almighty effort if it is to go through.
Two goal deficits have been overturned before and Liverpool has its own history to draw on. Perhaps the closest parallel comes from the game against Auxerre in second round of the UEFA Cup in 1991-92, Liverpool's first season back in European competition after the ban imposed following the Heysel disaster. Having been convincingly beaten 2-0 in France, Liverpool, on an awful run domestically, had leveled the aggregate scores within half an hour thanks to a Jan Molby penalty and a Mike Marsh header, before sealing a famous comeback as Mark Walters burst onto a Molby pass and slid a finish just inside Bruno Martini's right-hand post.
Others will recall the famous night against Olympiakos in the Champions League in 2004-05 when, having gone behind to a 26th-minute Rivaldo free-kick, Liverpool found itself having to score three times in the second half to make it out of the group stage. Three minutes into the second half, Harry Kewell crossed for Florent Sinama-Pongolle to poke in. Neil Mellor made it 2-1 and then, with four minutes remaining, as Anfield roared its expectation, Mellor cushioned a header to Steven Gerrard who, with majestic inevitability, thrashed a 25-yard drive into the corner.
And most famously of all there is St Etienne in 1976-77. 1-0 down from the first leg of the European Cup quarter-final, Liverpool leveled after two minutes but Domenique Bathenay struck a 30-yard screamer after 50 minutes. Ray Kennedy restored Liverpool's lead on the night just before the hour but it was going out on away goals when Bob Paisley brought on David Fairclough, a 20 year old with bright ginger hair with a reputation for being able to turn games from the bench. Six minutes from time, he gathered the ball around 35 yards from goal, held off a defender and finished calmly. It's said the roar could be heard three miles away.
So it is possible and the temptation is to believe that it is especially possible at Anfield where the apparitions of glories past haunt the pitch and where, on a European night, the noise can reverberate as it does nowhere else. But, really, the bigger question is why Liverpool has been left needing a comeback for the ages, why this season seems so often like a rather beautiful waltz to nowhere, each step forward being matched almost immediately by a similarly sized step backwards.
Liverpool is capable of glorious football, as it showed in Sunday's 5-0 demolition of Swansea City which at last put an end to the remarkable statistic that it had not beaten a team in the top half of the table. But it is also capable of passing the ball attractively for an age, getting nowhere and then letting in a daft goal defensively. What happened in the Petrovsky had happened against West Bromwich Albion only three days before, Liverpool squandering a dominant display by missing chances and conceding two second-half goals.
"Going into the last 20-25 minutes I was thinking we could win the game but we gave away two poor goals," said manager Brendan Rodgers. "The first one is a terrific strike but we are disappointed with the build-up and we could have defended it better. We ended up losing the game when we probably should have won the game. In six months, 12 months' time we won't be making those mistakes. This is a group that is growing and this is part of our growing pains. We have put in some terrific performances this season and not always got results but we have to be more clinical and that is something over the course of the coming months which will have to take place."
That sloppiness remains the great doubt, and it is a doubt that reflects questions about the manager. Rodgers is, at 40, young for a manager, and he has a unique vision. He also has a habit of speaking as though he learned to read using only management guides and self-help manuals and that has led some to suspect that he is rather more style than substance. Certainly at the moment, his team, for all the aesthetic pleasure it can afford, lacks the hardness that would make it a serious contender for honors on a regular basis. The encouraging sign is that Rodgers recognizes and acknowledges that.
But this is where assessing Liverpool becomes difficult: Rodgers inherited a side that had finished eighth in the table, 17 points off Champions League qualification - transforming that into a top four side will inevitably take time. Yet it also got to two cup finals, winning the League Cup. Was Liverpool last season an average side that got lucky in the cups, or a decent side that underperformed in the league?
The answer is probably a bit of both and Rodgers has been hampered this season by a failing of last - the inability to take chances. Suarez, in particular, for all he is the second leading Premier League scorer this season, has an unfortunate habit of missing chances by the narrowest of margins; even against Zenit he had three efforts that missed the target by less than a yard.
Even if there are questions as to whether the major surgery Rodgers is attempting was entirely necessary, it must be accepted that the transformation he is attempting to enact will take time.
Still, a glorious European night, another game to add to the legend, would go a long way towards persuading the doubters.