LIVERPOOL ALMOST PAID the price for fielding a near second-string side for their Europa League opener with Swiss side Young Boys in Bern on Thursday, but held on to win a thrilling match 5-3.
The Merseyside giants were the only English winners on the night with Newcastle held 0-0 at Maritimo in Portugal and Tottenham also left goalless at home to Lazio.
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, goalkeeper Jose Reina, striker Luis Suarez, first-choice defenders Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Welsh international midfield playmaker Joe Allen all remained behind on Merseyside for Thursday’s trip to Switzerland.
And Brendan Rodgers’ decision seemed it might backfire against a doughty Swiss side in a match with goal-scoring opportunities galore.
Liverpool, in their 100th UEFA Cup and Europa League match, went 1-0 up after just four minutes thanks to a most bizzare Juhani Ojala own goal.
A defensive header by Christoph Spycher rebounded off Ojala’s own head into the net past hapless ‘keeper Marco Wolfli.
But Raphael Nuzzolo pulled one back for Young Boys before Andre Wisdom made it 2-1 for Liverpool at the break.
The home side shot into the lead with goals from Ojala and, thanks to an excellent finish, Gonzalo Zarate in the 63rd minute.
But Sebastian Coates got one back to draw the Reds level, and impressive 20-year-old replacement Jonjo Shelvey bagged a brace to give the scoreline a slightly more healthy hue than it deserved.
Rodgers, whose team tackle Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday, said he always had faith in his young players.
“I don’t see it as courageous or brave, I just trust in my players,” he said.
“They are still coming to grips with how I want to play, we’ve got a long way to go. The most important characteristic is our fight.”
Liverpool’s Premier League rivals Newcastle had to be happy with a goalless draw with Maritimo Funchal, based on the Atlantic island of Madeira.
Newcastle had three decent efforts in front of goal, but all came back off the post, first from Dan Gosling and then two from captain Shola Ameobi.
They were then left to ride their luck as Maritimo’s Valentin Roberge saw his own header come crashing back off the woodwork in the 80th minute.
Andre Villas-Boas is still waiting for his first home win as Tottenham boss after his team were held to a 0-0 draw by Lazio at White Hart Lane.
Tottenham’s luck was out as Villas-Boas’s side had three goals disallowed — including a fine diving header by Clint Dempsey.
“I thought I was level with the line, it was a good ball from (Gareth) Bale and as it went in I thought I’d opened my account but it was waved offside,” said Dempsey.
“That’s the way it goes sometimes, they defended well, set up to counter-attack and were tough to break down.”
Reigning Europa League champions Atletico Madrid kicked off the defence of their title with a convincing 3-0 victory over Israeli club Hapoel Tel-Aviv.
Goals from Cristian Rodriguez and Diego Costa in the first half, allied by a third from Raul Garcia in the second period, saw the Spanish club stretch their European winning streak to 14 matches.
In Turkey, controversial English midfielder Joey Barton — still ineligible for league action following a ban picked up last season, made his debut for Marseille, whom he has joined on loan from Queens Park Rangers.
And it turned out to be a memorable night as the southern French club snatched a dramatic 2-2 draw with Fenerbahce, although Barton was substituted in the 71st minute with the score at 2-0.
“He blended well with the other players,” said Marseille coach Elie Baup of Barton.
“He tried to play his own game and be clean with his passing. It’s fundamental in our team to give as few balls away as possible and he was successful in this.”
Inter Milan needed a stoppage time equaliser from Japan full-back Yuto Nagatomo to salvage a 2-2 draw at home to Russian side Rubin Kazan.