Liverpool: Brendan Rodgers' side fail in Champions League

By Phil McNultyChief football writer
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers
Liverpool could only manage one win in six games in the Champions League group stage

Liverpool's defining Champions League group game against Basel prompted the usual sift through Anfield's history of memorable European nights as a source of inspiration - the only memories from this game will be bad ones.

The return to Europe's elite competition after a five-year absence was designed to be an affirmation of Liverpool's restored status after almost claiming the Premier League title in thrilling style last season.

Instead, it has not only been a painful voyage of discovery but also a short, sharp reality check confirming Liverpool do not currently sit at the European game's top table.

The end, after the 1-1 draw with Basel fell short of the victory Liverpool required, came in the manner of much that preceded it in a wretched group phase. They were pedestrian, often out-manouevred by Basel and lacked conviction. Not good enough.

Liverpool ended third in Group B, a section that was well-received when it was drawn, with only five points from six games. No-one could build a serious case to suggest they deserved further involvement.

Champions League football was the glittering consolation prize from that late league stumble last season but it has been a failure that leaves many questions to be answered.

Liverpool's Champions League campaign
16 Sept: Liverpool 2-1 Ludogorets 4 Nov: Real Madrid 1-0 Liverpool
1 Oct: FC Basel 1-0 Liverpool26 Nov: Ludogorets 2-2 Liverpool
22 Oct: Liverpool 0-3 Real Madrid9 Dec: Liverpool 1-1 FC Basel

Where has it gone wrong for Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers?

The most obvious answer is the loss of Luis Suarez - which has proved more damaging than anyone at Liverpool could have imagined and has been exacerbated by injury to Daniel Sturridge, the failed gamble on Mario Balotelli and an erratic transfer policy.

Liverpool have only once produced the dazzling football that characterised their title challenge last season, when they won 3-0 with Sturridge and Raheem Sterling in rampant form at Tottenham.

Since then Liverpool have been flat, uninspired and a pale shadow of just seven months ago. Not only have there been defeats away to Manchester City, West Ham United, Newcastle United and Crystal Palace but also at home to Aston Villa and Chelsea as well as dull, goalless Anfield draws against Hull City and Sunderland. It has gone from feast to famine now the fantasy of Suarez has been stripped away and Sturridge has pulled up lame - again.

Did Liverpool's fabled transfer committee not home in forensically on Sturridge's fitness record? Did they feel they had seen enough in finishing second last season to believe signings for the future would suffice to maintain that standing? If so, it has, so far, failed dismally.

The "committee" consists of Rodgers, scouts Dave Fallows and Barry Hunter, the man in charge of analysis Michael Edwards, owners Fenway Sports Group's (FSG) Anfield representative Michael Gordon and chief executive Ian Ayre.

On current evidence, Liverpool used the £75m they received from Barcelona for Suarez - and more besides to take spending past the £100m mark - on quantity rather than proven quality. Not for them the Chelsea model of signing tried and trusted talent such as Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, and how it shows.

The committee has not covered itself in glory.

When Liverpool needed victory at all costs against Basel, Rodgers left £25m signing from Southampton Adam Lallana on the bench, along with £10m Emre Can. He opted for what appeared the over-cautious midfield inclusion of Lucas and Joe Allen. Lallana has shone fleetingly but surely this was a night made for his creative talents?

Alberto Moreno, at £12m from Sevilla, has looked one of the better bets and yet he has now somehow been ousted by Jose Enrique, who has never cut it at Liverpool and did enough in the first 45 minutes against Basel to be removed and replaced by his fellow Spaniard.

Fabio Borini's Liverpool future is very much behind him but he seems so spectacularly out of favour that even with Sturridge and Balotelli out, he was not even considered for the bench.

Mario Balotelli
The gamble to bring Mario Balotelli to Anfield has not paid off

When Lambert's shortcomings at this level were exposed and he, too, was hooked at half-time, the game ended with the sight of defender Martin Skrtel throwing himself at long balls and crosses up front, very much at odds with Rodgers' approach to the game.

Liverpool's approach was muddled, as it has seemed to be on many things since the end of last season. How can Balotelli be "categorically" not coming to Liverpool according to Rodgers one day then arrive a couple of weeks later?

Rodgers accepts questions will be asked if more disappointments arrive but his own position should be put in perspective.

FSG said recently there was no immediate threat to his position - nor should there be so soon after almost winning Liverpool's first title in 25 years and being named the League Managers' Association Manager Of The Year.

Reason should prevail but Rodgers is a student of Liverpool's history and will also know the demanding nature of the current owners. Sunday's visit to Manchester United in an intriguing trick of timing.

European royalty?

This is the message proclaimed on a flag fluttering at every Liverpool game in Europe this season. The truth, as the evidence of Group B confirms, is very different. In terms of history yes, but in current standing not today thank you.

Liverpool won only one of their six games, that a late win with a Steven Gerrard penalty at home to Ludogorets, while they were beaten in Basel, ran ragged by Real Madrid at Anfield and lost narrowly away. Draws away and at home to Ludogorets and Basel confirmed their demise.

Ironically, the game that arguably now brings them most credit is the 1-0 loss in the Bernabeu with a contentious team selection from Rodgers when he left out the likes of Gerrard and Raheem Sterling then subsequently made seven changes for the home game to Chelsea, which Liverpool lost.

Liverpool's five goals in their six games is another damning statistic and their last attempt to reach the knockout phase was symptomatic of how poor they have been.

With victory required, the first half was a turgid affair devoid of quality, Basel weaving shapes and patterns around a Liverpool team performing in a timid manner completely at odds with the importance of the game.

Anfield was quieter than usual when Liverpool faced Basel

The late rally that followed Gerrard's equaliser cannot cover up the brutal truth that Liverpool came up short, perhaps also paying a price for their long absence from the Champions League.

Even the Anfield atmosphere was not its usual self. Yes, there was a raucous rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" before kick-off but after that much of the game was played in relative peace and quiet until Liverpool's fans detected injustice in Lazar Markovic's red card.

The noises off usually came with the defensive hesitation and uncertainty that has become Liverpool's trademark, especially when goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has the ball at his feet. Liverpool fans currently do not trust Mignolet as far as he can kick it when he has possession.

Until those last few minutes, there was a resigned air around Anfield, not the bearpit, passion-filled arena that has brought illustrious opponents down in Europe. This was not a reflection on the supporters but on just how ordinary Liverpool were until it was too late.

And Liverpool's defence does nothing to offer reassurance, with panicky skied clearances in the first minute, hesitation on the ball, an age to clear and uncertainty all round. Not designed to relax the Anfield crowd.

Just a few months ago, Liverpool fans crowded around the team bus in a guard of honour as it entered the Shankly Gates, scenting the title. Here they left to the sound of silence.

Gerrard still indispensible

When Liverpool looked for Champions League hope, they looked in the same place they found it almost exactly 10 years ago when Gerrard's brilliant strike gave them a win against Olympiakos that put them in the knockout phase on the way to that famous Istanbul win against AC Milan.

Steven Gerrard
Liverpool are a better team with Gerrard than without

Gerrard's enduring talent, particularly at a dead ball, is still that main source of optimism as his free-kick gave rise to the possibility of Liverpool pulling off another escape.

It also proved was that any idea that Gerrard can be allowed to leave Anfield is nonsense. Liverpool, for all their millions spent over the years as well as this summer, are still a better team with Gerrard than without.

Light in the darkness

All is not lost this season and Liverpool could yet turn matters around. For all their struggles this season they remain only six points off fourth place and victory at Bournemouth this time next week would put them in the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup.

The key to so much of Liverpool's fortunes this season hinges of the return to fitness of Sturridge - and then how long he actually stays fit when he is back.

And, ironically, for the 15 minutes he was on the pitch against Basel until he unwisely threw his hand in the direction of Behrang Safari, who was only too happy to hit the turf in farcical fashion, £20m summer signing Markovic looked in his finest shape yet - fast, direct and a threat.

The January transfer window may offer other options, but with Liverpool's erratic transfer record and the risks involved in spending money during that month, those sales might be best avoided.


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