Back to drawing board for Liverpool

Source:Agencies Published: 2014-12-12 19:48:01

The Reds suffer early exit at Champions League group stage

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard (right) reacts after losing to Basel in their Champions League home match at Anfield in Liverpool on Tuesday. Photo: CFP

 Liverpool can only hope that their elimination from the ­Champions League heralds the end of a vertiginous downward spiral that began with Steven Gerrard's infamous slip against Chelsea last season.

Since Gerrard lost his footing on April 27, gifting Demba Ba a goal that set Chelsea on their way to a 2-0 win that tilted the Premier League title race in Manchester City's favor, ­Liverpool have lost their way.

Luis Suarez left for Barcelona. Some 116 million pounds ($181.8 million) was spent on new players who have yet to convince, with Mario Balotelli the most conspicuous disappointment. Daniel Sturridge has succumbed to a succession of injuries.

And after making a dismal start to the Premier League season, Tuesday's 1-1 draw at home to Basel saw Liverpool's return to the Champions League following a five-year absence ended after only 85 days.

"In the first half we weren't good enough - it's as simple as that," manager Brendan Rodgers said. "Technically, we were way short. This is a competition, in particular, where technically you've got to be much better than what we were in the first half.

"Our positioning wasn't good, the options for the guy on the ball weren't anywhere near what we would want and expect from a team that is based on a technical game."

Tellingly, some of Rodgers' summer signings were left on the bench for arguably the biggest game of the season on Tuesday.

Gerrard's late equalizer from a free-kick briefly gave Anfield hope of a comeback to compare with the glorious European fightbacks of last year, but in sum, the performance was a microcosm of all Liverpool's current ills.

With Sturridge and Balotelli both injured, the powerful but limited Rickie Lambert - a close-season ­recruit from Southampton - started up front, but lasted only 45 minutes.

Both he and Balotelli were signed to provide alternatives to the ­mobility and guile of Sturridge, but in the former Chelsea striker's absence, Liverpool look bereft of pace and inventiveness at center forward.

Last season, when Liverpool narrowly missed out on a first league title in 24 years, their dominance of possession enabled them to push and pull teams out of position before either Suarez or Sturridge would pounce.

With neither Suarez nor Sturridge in the team, there is an aimlessness to their ball circulation, and against Basel that was only exacerbated by the nerves of the Anfield crowd.

Rodgers's biggest summer signing, Adam Lallana, did not even make it off the bench, while Lazar Markovic, a 20 million pound recruit from Benfica, injected purpose and directness after coming on at half-time, only to be sent off for flinging a hand at Behrang Safari.

Sturridge 'devastated'

In defense, Liverpool continue to look vulnerable, with goalkeeper Simon Mignolet's confidence at a low ebb after a string of recent errors and Dejan Lovren is seemingly incapable of exuding the reassurance he was signed from Southampton to provide.

Gerrard looked off the pace for long periods against Basel, although his fine, arcing free kick proved that, even at 34 and amid uncertainty about his future, he remains the man for the big occasion.

Liverpool's defense is marginally less porous than it was last season, conceding an average of 1.27 goals per league game compared to 1.32 in 2013-14, but when the forwards only average 1.27 goals per game at the other end, the sums do not make for encouraging reading.

As well as losing three and drawing two of their six Champions League group games - scoring only five goals - they have already lost six times in the league and also dropped points in frustrating 0-0 draws at home to Hull City and Sunderland.

Resurgent United await

Sunday's trip to Manchester United on a five-game winning run portends further gloom.

United will bid for a sixth straight Premier League victory to heap more misery on Rodgers and his beleaguered Liverpool when the bitter rivals meet at Old Trafford on Sunday.

United, who finished seventh last season, continued to recover from their poor start to the campaign with a fortunate 2-1 win at high-flying ­Southampton on Monday that lifted them into third place for the first time since August 2013.

By contrast, last term's runners-up Liverpool are ninth.

Liverpool have struggled to recapture the form that took them to the brink of the title and, after two wins in their last six league matches - ­including a 0-0 home draw with Sunderland on Saturday - they have 21 points.

United striker Robin van Persie scored both goals in the victory at Southampton and three strikes in as many games have helped silence the critics following his poor early form.

The Netherlands captain said he and his teammates, who are eight points adrift of leaders Chelsea with 28 after 15 games, are finding their top form.

"The next game is Liverpool, so we're looking forward to that," Van Persie said. "We are really happy that we are on the way up now. We have to keep the momentum going."

But with only six points between Liverpool and the Champions League places of Premier League sides, all is not lost just yet, while ­victory at second-tier Bournemouth next week will take them into the League Cup semifinals.

Rodgers believes that by the spring, with Sturridge back from injury and the new players having bedded in, Liverpool will be a different prospect, capable of mounting a challenge in both the league and the Europa League.

Watching Tuesday's game at home, Sturridge tweeted, "Sat here ­devastated wishing I could have helped. We'll come back stronger from this and I'm working hard to do the same."

For Liverpool's supporters, that turnaround cannot come too quickly.

Posted in: Feature, Soccer

blog comments powered by Disqus