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Basel’s Marco Streller Sinks Liverpool To Extend Champions League Jinx

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ENGLAND may have granted Brendan Rodgers his wish on Daniel Sturridge but there was precious little else to appease the Liverpool manager in Basel. Sturridge’s importance to Liverpool rises in absentia and the worry for Rodgers is that his problems run deeper than one injured striker, having surrendered the initiative to Paulo Sousa’s side in the Champions League.

Liverpool were once again limited in attack without the England international and for all his hard work Mario Balotelli remains elusive as an attacking threat. The Italian striker headed straight for the tunnel on the final whistle as his manager ordered his players to salute Liverpool’s suffering travelling support, his disappointment understandable but his lack of appreciation poor.

Liverpool were once again vulnerable to a set piece, Basel’s captain, Marco Streller, settling the outcome as the visitors made a hash of clearing a corner, and once again their midfield was unable to offer the necessary protection under pressure and prevent the Swiss champions from slicing through too easily. Twelve years ago Basel signalled the end for Liverpool in the Champions League and, while it would be indecently premature to predict a repeat, this result could prove costly should Real Madrid seize control of Group B and leave these two clubs competing for second place.

Rodgers said afterwards that his summer signings need time to adapt to Liverpool and that injuries have contributed to the team’s faltering start. Like the criticism of his team’s performances, it is becoming a familiar lament and the Liverpool manager needs his £117m summer outlay to start making an impact before further damaged is suffered in the Premier League and Champions League. Basel were nothing special and yet were deserving winners.

Lively St Jakob Park has proven a troublesome venue for English clubs in the Champions League – Chelsea losing here last season, Manchester United being eliminated on this ground in 2011 plus Gérard Houllier’s Liverpool in 2002 – but all was not well with the Swiss champions before the return of the Anfield club. Sousa, Rodgers’ predecessor as Swansea City manager, has returned Basel to the top of their domestic league after 10 games of his inaugural season in charge yet there is already an online petition against his brief reign.

Constant team changes and the opening 5-1 Champions League loss to Real Madrid are among the causes of discontent but Sousa had called on his players to repeat their performance at the Bernabéu, insisting another display containing 50% possession and 16 shots would “give us a great chance of winning this match”. The advice was heeded and Sousa’s words proved prophetic. Basel were more industrious, threatening and resilient throughout. Only when behind did Liverpool suggest they could trouble Tomas Vaclik’s goal but Lazar Markovic and Raheem Sterling were unable to show the required composure.

Basel lost the left-back Behrang Safari to a knee injury after only four minutes but suffered minimal disruption as Sousa switched to a 3-5-2, prompting Rodgers to respond by changing Liverpool to 4-4-1-1, and saw his team frequently stretch the visiting defence. Safari’s replacement, Derlis González, was quickly up to the speed of Basel’s energetic start and Liverpool’s midfield offered little resistance as the home side found spaces outside the visitors’ area too easily.

Streller almost punished a Steven Gerrard error when the Liverpool captain squandered possession on the edge of his penalty area but made amends by blocking his Basel counterpart’s low shot. The under-pressure Simon Mignolet saved from Ahmed Hamoudi, who later drove an inviting cross inches away from Streller’s forehead, and also denied Geoffroy Serey Die after the midfielder cut inside two Liverpool defenders after a neat exchange with the towering Basel centre-forward.

Basel’s biggest problem on the night was self-inflicted when a battery appeared to be thrown in the direction of the assistant referee next to Tomas Vaclik’s goal. The object was handed to a Uefa official, a warning was sounded over the PA system but the Swiss club could face further sanction. Basel were fined £100,000 and ordered to play two matches behind closed doors (with one game suspended for two years) after a similar incident in a Europa League game against Salzburg in March.

On the field, the threat from Streller increased after the interval and Liverpool’s defending at a set piece was lamentable once again when they deservedly fell behind. Sterling was extremely fortunate not to concede a penalty when he pulled down González as the substitute shaped to shoot inside the area, then Hamoudi broke clear down the left and drew a fine save from Mignolet low to his left. Moments later, from Taulant Xhaka’s corner, a distracted Martin Skrtel miscued a header towards his own goal, Mignolet scooped the ball clear but only into the path of Streller, who converted from close range.

The breakthrough finally wakened Liverpool but Markovic was unable to convert several decent openings, one from a thunderous Balotelli free-kick that rebounded off the Basel goalkeeper, and Sterling wasted a great chance with a dreadful first touch when put clear by the Italy international. It was an appropriate reflection of Liverpool’s performance. -The Guardian

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