Liverpool were unable to pull off another miraculous European rescue as they exited the Champions League at Anfield last night.
An overly defensive starting line-up, shockingly bad first half performance and one of the most ridiculous refereeing decisions I have ever witnessed all meant that Liverpool failed to secure the win that they needed to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League, finishing third in Group B with five points and therefore dropping into the Europa League following a 1-1 draw at home to Swiss side Basel.
Fabian Frei rewarded Basel’s superiority and punished Liverpool midway through the first half when he scored with a sweet strike and, although skipper Steven Gerrard conjured up a piece of magic from a free kick to roll back the years and give Kopites hope with ten minutes remaining, the Reds’ late push proved insufficient to prevent a crushing Champions League exit.
Truth be told, Liverpool didn’t deserve to progress, not just because of this sub-par performance, but also because Rodgers’ side simply haven’t been good enough over the course of the six group stage matches. One win in six in a group in which they were favourites to finish as runners up really isn’t acceptable, even considering the Merseysiders’ extended absence from the elite European competition.
Boss Brendan Rodgers must take his fair share of the blame. His starting line-up was perplexing to say the least. Picking four central midfielders, two of which are primarily defensive midfielders, giving the woeful Enrique a guest appearance at left back and leaving both Coutinho and Lallana on a bench that contained no strikers were all decisions that made absolutely no sense. It seemed like the sort of line-up you’d expect him to pick if it was an away game in which a point would suffice, not a must-win make or break home match.
The players also appeared to fail to comprehend the magnitude of the occasion as they put in a first half performance that they should be ashamed of. Defensively nervy and devoid of ideas going forward, Liverpool were abysmal, deflating the Anfield crowd and encouraging their opponents, who were assured in possession, mobile off the ball and threatening in attack but were ultimately a competent European outfit made to look like world-beaters by a Liverpool side that is a pale shadow of last season’s.
Shkelzen Gashi, top scorer in the Swiss Super League, fired a warning shot just over the bar on 13 minutes after playing a neat one-two with Luca Zuffi, before Fabian Frei gave Paulo Sousa’s men a deserved lead on 25 minutes. It all started when Liverpool gave possession away cheaply as Mignolet stupidly threw the ball out to the heavily marked Lucas on the edge of his own box. Basel worked the ball patiently and eventually Zuffi laid it off for Frei, who fired a shot into the bottom right hand corner from 20 yards out.
|Frei celebrates scoring the opener at Anfield|
That should have been a wake-up call for Liverpool, but they didn’t respond by upping their game and actually looked capable of falling further behind before the break. On the half hour mark, only Streller’s ambitions to net a worldie at the Kop end kept the Reds’ task from becoming doubly difficult, as the unmarked 33-year old unwisely attempted to volley Xhaka’s chipped cross when it would have been far easier to head home from close range. Gashi did have the ball in the back of the net a couple of minutes before the interval but thankfully he was flagged offside.
Forced into making a double substitution at the break, Rodgers took Lambert off, introducing Markovic to the action and pushing Sterling up into the lone striker’s role. Moreno, who should have started, also replaced Enrique and offered much more than the Spaniard down the left hand side.
To be fair to Rodgers, he clearly made the wrong decision with his starting line-up, but his changes at half time were clever, and Liverpool were slowly improving in the second half up until the ludicrous sending off.
Ironically and irritatingly, Lazar Markovic was particularly effective, embarking on a couple of decent runs and generally injecting a bit of much-needed urgency and directness into the hosts’ play. It looked all set up for him to make himself a hero and win over the many supporters who remain unconvinced of his qualities following his £20 million summer move from Benfica.
Unfortunately, he was denied the opportunity by a scandalous decision by referee Bjorn Kuipers. How he can show Markovic a red for grazing Safari’s cheeks with his fingernails is beyond me, and Safari’s reaction was unsportsmanlike conduct as he clearly tried to get Markovic sent off.
|I'm genuinely struggling to remember a worse red card decision|
Some have claimed that there was malicious intent on Markovic’s part, but it didn’t look like that at all. He seemed to be merely trying to push Safari off the ball, misjudging his distance from the Basel number 19. At worst, it was a free kick, but I think even a booking would have been harsh, so a red card is just unbelievable.
The hope at that point was that the Reds would be spurred on by a sense of injustice. Thankfully, after a brief lull as Liverpool came to terms with the mountain they had to climb, the home side noticeably improved, Skrtel thundering a magnificent effort just over the bar from 30 yards. However, it wasn’t until Steven Gerrard scored a wonder goal that Liverpool really got going.
As he so often does in these situations, Gerrard came up with the goods when it really matters. He bent an inch-perfect free kick over the wall and into the top left corner of the net off the post from the edge of the area. It was an excellent goal that explained why Stevie still deserves to be one of the first names on the team sheet for the biggest matches.
|Stevie is still the man for the big occasion|
Throwing Martin Skrtel up front, Liverpool went all out to get the second goal, inevitably leaving them vulnerable at the back; Mignolet had to make saves from Zuffi and Embolo and also saw Xhaka slam a shot wide in the closing stages.
At the other end, though, the Reds went genuinely close to clinching a late winner. First, Henderson’s rubbish header from Gerrard’s cross almost inadvertently dribbled over the line following a deflection off Gashi. Agonisingly, the wrong-footed Vaclik just about recovered in time to stop it rolling slowly into the net.
Henderson then produced a much better effort on goal, sending a sweetly struck strike goalwards from the edge of the box, which forced Vaclik to make a decent save. Skrtel also struck just wide from Sterling’s cross, before the young England international saw the keeper easily deal with his tame shot in what proved to be the last act of the night.
It was gutting, particularly because Liverpool almost pulled off a seemingly impossible European comeback once again but just couldn’t quite do enough to secure second place in Group B. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that it all could have been so different had Liverpool played they like did during the final ten minutes right from the start. Attacking endeavour and purpose was needed right from the word ‘go’, but was only evident when all hope seemed lost.
|Inconsolable: Gerrard and Henderson on the full time whistle|
Now, Liverpool embarrassingly drop down into the Europa League, which is not where they want to be. In previous seasons, I would have preferred finishing fourth in the group and dropping out of Europe altogether, as at least that would have avoided the damaging effect of a Thursday-Sunday match schedule on the Reds’ League form.
However, the winners of this season’s Europa League qualify for next season’s Champions League and, considering how tough it is going to be to finish in the top four, winning the Europa League may be the easiest route back into Europe’s elite competition. It would kill two birds with one stone, ensuring cup success and Champions League qualification. It could also potentially prevent bitter rivals Manchester United, who Liverpool face at Old Trafford on Sunday, from qualifying for the Champions League if they finish fourth, which would be brilliant.
As difficult as it will be, Liverpool now need to just pick themselves up and go again against Manchester United on Sunday. Who knows, they could beat United and then Arsenal at Anfield, stranger things have happened. If they do, Liverpool supporters will enjoy a much merrier Christmas, even without Champions League football to look forward to in 2015.