Liverpool Crash Out Of Champions League After Meek Show Against Basel

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AT least in that frenzied late assault, after Steven Gerrard had equalised and the team in red gave absolutely everything to add another occasion to their all-time list of great comebacks, we saw a few glimpses of the old Liverpool spirit. Yet the damage had already been done and for the majority of this match it had been mystifying to see them play with so little drive and momentum when anything but a win meant dropping into the clunky Thursday-night-Sunday-afternoon cycle of Europa League football.

It was a pulsating finale and Liverpool’s late attempt at escapology was certainly commendable given they had to contend with Lazar Markovic, a half-time substitute, being sent off barely a quarter of an hour after coming on. Their 10 men threatened the most improbable ending but the awkward truth is it had been another night to expose the scale of Liverpool deterioration before Gerrard’s 81st-minute free-kick arced into the top corner.

Liverpool might have nicked it in those impassioned final moments but a match is judged over 90 minutes, not 10, and at times it felt as though Brendan Rodgers’s players had temporarily forgotten what is expected of them on the big European nights, under the floodlights, in front of their own crowd. Instead, they had been politely ushering themselves to the door. Of all the disappointments, that was probably the most perplexing.

It is just a shame for Liverpool that they left it so late before finding any real belief and found it beyond them when it was even numbers.

They had set out knowing only a win would suffice and yet the sense of urgency that might have been anticipated during the opening exchanges never materialised. The crowd were strangely subdued and as Basel sized up their opponents, then elegantly took control, it was strange to be at Anfield for one of these important fixtures and find a team doing so little to turn up the volume.

Basel had a boisterous following but they also had the knowledge they had beaten English opposition, including Chelsea twice last season, on their previous four encounters. They quickly showed their tactic would not be conservatism and fully deserved the half-time lead courtesy of Fabian Frei’s firecracker of a shot after 25 minutes.

Liverpool in those moments had looked what they now are: a Europa League side. More than anything, they seemed stripped of confidence. In one revealing moment out by the touchline, Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva all left a dropping ball to one another and the nearest opponent, Taulant Xhaka, was completely unchallenged with his header.

When Raheem Sterling had Liverpool’s first opportunity his diminished assurance was plain in the way he declined the chance and tried a pass that was never on. Liverpool were teetering, ragged, dispirited and barely recognisable from the side that had bewitched Anfield last season.

What happened in the second half was unorthodox in many ways. Markovic had replaced the peripheral Rickie Lambert during the interval and in his brief time on the pitch he did at least inject a touch more drive into Liverpool’s attack. Then, as the game ticked past the hour, he and Behrang Safari went for the same ball. Markovic was slightly ahead of his opponent and the Liverpool player did swing back his right hand. Yet it was the merest of touches, barely a flick of fingertips against Safari’s nose, and almost certainly meant as a hand-off rather than something more violent. Safari was probably the game’s outstanding performer but his reaction was exaggerated in the extreme and undoubtedly helped to convince the Dutch referee, Bjorn Kuipers, it merited a red card. Liverpool were entitled to be aggrieved and Rodgers’s anger went as far as saying it should have been Safari who was sent off.

José Enrique had also been replaced at half-time and the double substitution was a measure of how alarmed Rodgers must have been about Basel’s superiority. “We just weren’t good enough,” he said. “We weren’t anywhere near where we wanted to be, not even close.”

Yet the paradox was that Liverpool, a man down, improved considerably when everything seemed lost. Sterling, now operating in the centre-forward role, started to flicker with menace. Gerrard reminded everyone of his qualities, lifting the crowd with a thunderous challenge on the impressive Xhaka, then running clear and was denied only by a fine save from Tomas Vaclik, diving at his feet.

Gerrard’s equaliser came shortly afterwards and it was a dramatic ending as the ball ricocheted around the Basel penalty area and the crowd roared for someone to apply a decisive touch. Overall, though, Basel used the ball with greater expertise and, as Rodgers acknowledged, looked the more rounded team.

The move for Frei’s goal was a case in point, featuring a crisp exchange of passes, a clever one-two with Luca Zuffi just outside the penalty area and then a 20-yard shot, left-footed and with the minimum of back lift, to pick out the spot just inside Simon Mignolet’s left-hand post.

The Swiss league leaders had several other chances in the first half, whereas Vaclik barely had a scrap of mud on his kit during the same period. Liverpool, with five points out of six games, left it too late and will be jealous onlookers when the Champions League resumes in February. – The Guardian