Basel end Liverpool's Champions League run with dramatic draw
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND --
A disappointing start to the season deteriorated further for Liverpool on Tuesday as, needing to beat Basel to progress to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League, it drew 1-1, to leave it with just five points from the six group games.
Nor, in truth, could Liverpool have many complaints about its exit. Four of Liverpool's points were picked up against the Bulgarian champions Ludogorets. Basel were simply brighter, livelier and more imaginative and the Reds undermined themselves with the sending-off on the hour of the substitute Lazar Markovic.
Yet after 80 ordinary minutes, Liverpool produced a late surge that briefly promised a repeat of the game 10 years and a day ago when the Redsl scored three times in the second half and twice in the final 10 minutes to secure the two-goal margin of victory it needed against Olympiakos to secure progress to the last 16. What happened next, of course, was one of the most improbable stories in the history of the competition, Liverpool stuttering in the league but seeing off Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus, Chelsea and then, from 3-0 down at halftime, AC Milan in the final.
This game began not dissimilarly to that match of 2004, at least in as much as Liverpool started poorly and fell behind midway through the half. The lack of confidence in this side is an extraordinary contrast to the spring, when Liverpool was fast and direct. Rickie Lambert, playing as a lone forward with Steven Gerrard just behind him, is never going to offer the same sort of threat as Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, but the lack of pace and confidence extends further than that.
When Raheem Sterling was presented with an opportunity by a Behrang Safari error after 21 minutes, for instance, he mystifyingly didn't take the shot on himself, but tried to cut it back for Gerrard, who was crowded out. It spoke of a lack of confidence, a tendency to over-complicate that was absent last year.
And the defending remains dismal. Liverpool had already had a warning when Shkelzen Gashi fired wide after 13 minutes and, on 25 minutes, it fell behind. Basel's passing was neat, but it was allowed to be. There was little pressure on the ball as Fabian Frei played a one-two on the edge of the box with Luca Zuffi before despatching a low shot into the bottom corner.
It could easily have been worse as well. It took a finely judged challenge from Jose Enrique to deny Derlis Gonzalez as he surged through and then Marco Streller, the experienced center-forward was left unmarked at the back post, only for Gashi's cross to reach him at a height comfortable for neither heading nor volleying; his eventual attempt at a high volley squirted wide. Simon Mignolet, who had been left sadly shaking at his head at the defending before the goal then made a good save low to his right to keep out a drive from Fabian Schar.
Even Brendan Rodgers's halftime substitutions seemed to ape the Olympiakos game. Alberto Moreno came on for Jose Enrique, who had had a dismal first half, while Markovic was introduced just as Florent Sinama Pongolle had been 10 years ago -- a willowy, quick attacker whose exact purpose had eluded everybody until that night.
And there the similarities ended. Markovic had actually injected some vim and made a couple of threatening runs when, on the hour, he was pursued in center-half by Behrang Safari. He took a look, swung an arm and, although it was only the very tips of his fingers that made contact with Safari's nose, the intent was clear, and Markovic was sent off, his miserable start to life at Anfield taking a turn for the worse.
"I thought it was an awful decision," Rodgers said on the tackle. "I thought the referee was disappointing on the evening to say the least. He had just taken a touch away, he's obviously got his arm up, but if that's a sending-off you are going to have two or three sendings-off every single game. It was a really, really poor decision."
Regardles, Gerrard, surging clear, had the crowd baying for a penalty as he tumbled over the arms of Tomas Vaclik, but replays confirmed that the goalkeeper had got his hand on the ball first and made a clean challenge. And then, with 10 minutes remaining, he bent in a free kick from just outside the box. Suddenly there was hope and, for the first time, Anfield erupted. This suddenly was Olympiakos again: Nine minutes to chase a goal.
This time, though, there was no repeat of the heroics of Gerrard and Neil Mellor. Jordan Henderson went close with a deflected header, a Sterling sprint forced a last-gasp challenge, but when a half-cleared corner dropped to Gerrard on the edge of the box in the final minute, he couldn't get over his shot and skewed his effort into the stands.
Asked if Liverpool had deserved better from their Champions League campaign, Gerrard said on ITV: "No. We haven't gone out of the competition because of our performance tonight, we've gone out because away at Basle we weren't good enough, in our last game we conceded a stupid goal towards injury time. You always qualify over the six games and unfortunately we haven't been good enough."
Gerrard is not the player of 10 years ago, this is not the Liverpool of 10 years ago -- and this was not the match of 10 years ago.
"We now have to fight going forward to be in it next season," Rodgers said after the match. "Oviously our performance level needs to improve over the course of the season."