Having come so close to winning the Premier League last season,Liverpool’s qualification for the Champions League for the first time in five years constituted something of a consolation prize for their fans.
With the financial windfall that qualification for Europe’s premier club competition brings, and the increased exposure, Liverpool will have seen their Champions League return as a way to cement their position back at the top of the English game.
As things have turned out, however, the Reds have fallen at the first hurdle, and qualification for the Champions League has done nothing but raise questions about their credentials.
Difficult To Comprehend
Heading into last night’s game with Basel, which they ultimately drew 1-1, Liverpool knew that a win would be enough to see them into the knockout stages of the competition. Despite this, the home side looked timid and seemed to lack the cutting edge needed to break down their Swiss opponents.
Needing a win, the decision to start with Lucas Leiva alongside Joe Allen in the middle of the park seemed difficult to comprehend, particularly given that one of Liverpool’s few creative talents, Philippe Coutinho, was left on the bench until the middle of the second half.
Having conceded a goal to Fabian Frei in the first half, Liverpool needed to up the tempo quickly but they lacked ideas and were made to wait until the 81st minute before Steven Gerrard bagged an outstanding,free-kick equaliser.
By this time, Rickie Lambert had already been replaced in attack by Lazar Markovic, who had added a bit of pace and dynamism to the attack before his sending off for lashing out at Behrang Safari. The red card left Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers less than impressed with the match officials after the final whistle.
Damage Long Since Done
Liverpool could have saved themselves late on, with the Basel goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik saving well from Jordan Henderson while Gerrard had a penalty claim. But, in truth, the damage to this season’s European campaign was long since done. Going into the game, the Reds had won just once in their previous five Group B matches – a very late 2-1 victory over Ludogorets in the opening round of fixtures.
Even if they had won last night, their two defeats to Real Madrid in the group campaign indicate that they would probably soon have exited the competition had they come up against any of the other big boys, and Rodgers knows they are not up to the standard required to compete at the top level.
Into the Europa League Hat
So now Liverpool find themselves into the hat for the knockout stages of the Europa League, but will Rodgers take the Thursday night competition seriously?
It is to be hoped he does, and he has said he will do, as winning it could be Liverpool’s only route back into the Champions League next season. Currently sat ninth in the Premier League table, the Reds have endured an indifferent start to the season and they look unlikely to mount any real challenge for the upper reaches of the league this campaign.
A good run in the Europa League could salvage Rodgers’ season and, particularly given the seriousness with which Everton are taking the competition, having qualified for the knockout stages with a game to spare, it will be expected by the Anfield faithful.
As for the punters, they have given their backing to Liverpool. A quick look around the bookies suggests Rodgers’ men are amongst the favourites with betfair at around 14/1 while others such as skybet and totesport also have the Merseysiders among the front-runners to lift the Europa League trophy in Poland in May.
It is clear for all to see the signings Liverpool made in the summer have not come close to matching the men they have replaced. Rodgers has come in for criticism but it seems his only way out of the current rut is more spending.
Firstly,Rodgers must buy a reliable goalkeeper. As good a shot-stopper as Simon Mignolet is, he is prone to errors and is not decisive enough to give his back four confidence. Someone like Chelsea’s Petr Cech could be just the ticket for the Anfield fans.
Liverpool’s defence also needs tightening up. The likes of Glen Johnson and Dejan Lovren have underperformed this season and the club needs more competition for places.A man like Winston Reid, who has had an exceptional few seasons for West Ham United but is reportedly making wage demands which could see him leave Upton Park, could really help to improve the defence.
Lastly, upfront, Daniel Sturridge cannot return soon enough for Rodgers but he needs support and he cannot be expected to spearhead Liverpool’s attack on his own. Lambert is a willing worker and will do a job but Mario Balotelli has proved that he is not up to the task.
At Â£16m, Balotelli was a risk worth taking but it could now be time for Liverpool to cut their losses. Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony has seven league goals to his name this season and wouldn’t come cheaply but he is a proven goalscorer and could be a great option for Rodgers if he could prise him away from his old club.
Next Up -Old Trafford
Next up for Liverpool are bitter rivals Manchester United, who they meet at Old Trafford on Sunday. With Luis van Gaal’s men flying high, it will be a very tough assignment but it could come at just the right time for Liverpool as they seek to prove that they can still cope with Europe’s best.