Thursday, 2 October 2014

Basel defeat damages Liverpool's European hopes

Liverpool slipped to what could be a critical Champions League defeat in Switzerland last night.

Lacking teeth in attack and shaky at the back, Liverpool were punished by their Swiss hosts, who won courtesy of a scrappy Streller goal soon after the half time interval. The disappointing but unsurprising defeat leaves Liverpool third in Group B and, with back-to-back matches against Spanish giants Real Madrid up next, the Reds’ European fate already appears to be in the balance.

Daniel Sturridge remained unavailable thanks to a thigh strain, while Mamadou Sakho was left out of the squad mysteriously and conveniently ‘injured’ in training only days after walking out of Anfield before kick off in a sulk  after being omitted from the match day squad for the Merseyside derby. Enrique unexpectedly replaced Moreno at left back to make only his second start of the season, while Coutinho came in for Lallana in the only two changes to the team that drew 1-1 with Everton on the weekend.

The twin problems of a seemingly impotent attack and dangerously vulnerable defence reared their ugly heads again throughout last night’s frustrating contest. Up front, Balotelli was typically immobile and the Italian only managed one shot on target as Basel’s defence, which shipped five goals to Real Madrid in their opening group stage match, dealt with the number 45 relatively comfortably.

With only one goal in seven appearances, Balotelli has made a slow start to his Liverpool career
At the back, meanwhile, Manquillo and Enrique were often exposed, while Skrtel and Lovren were both culpable for Streller’s winner.

It could have all been so different had Raheem Sterling held his line and not strayed offside two minutes in. The 19-year old converted Manquillo’s cross at the second time of asking after his initial effort hit the woodwork, but the linesman’s flag had been rightly raised and the effort was ruled out. Had the goal stood, the Reds would have had the momentum to go on and easily beat Basel, who were there for the taking, particularly in the first half.

As it was, Liverpool looked disjointed, hesitant and evidently suffering a dearth of confidence following an indifferent start to the campaign.

Skipper Steven Gerrard, who responded so emphatically to his critics with an excellent goal against Everton on Saturday, gave his detractors more ammunition on twelve minutes when he lost the ball in a very dangerous position deep in his own half. Only Streller shooting wide when he should have done better spared his blushes.

That moment was reflective of the rest of the match. Basel’s intense playing style and high tempo, which has proven so successful in defeating other English opponents, such as Manchester United and Chelsea, who have visited St Jakob-Park in recent years, forced Liverpool into mistakes and generally made Rodgers’ side seem uneasy and out-of-sorts.

In a quiet remainder of the half, Serey Die tested Mignolet with a toe-poked effort after embarrassingly leaving Enrique on his back side, while Mignolet’s opposite number Vaclik easily held Sterling’s strike and Lovren’s headed effort from a corner kick was directed into the turf, losing all its power and rendering it harmless.

It was in depressingly familiar circumstances that Liverpool fell behind eight minutes after the restart, as their soft defensive centre was exposed for the umpteenth time this season. A routine right wing corner was swung into the penalty area and it proved too difficult for the Reds’ defence to deal with, as it deflected off Skrtel, ricocheted off Lovren and then fell to Streller, who was the only one reacting to the second ball and thus had ample time to sweep home from close range.

When will the Reds' defence learn?
It was shambolic stuff from a defence that just doesn’t seem to learn from past mistakes, nor pay attention on the training ground.

Liverpool improved in response to conceding, but not a great deal. Balotelli forced Vaclik to make an unconventional save from his 35-yard free kick, while Sterling was denied by a timely intervention from a defender after racing past two opponents, before Rodgers replaced Coutinho with Lallana in an attempt to freshen up the Reds’ flagging attack.

It almost worked, as the former Southampton skipper was involved in the best move that the visitors produced on 76 minutes. He combined positively with Balotelli to set up Sterling, who had the perfect opportunity to equalise but fluffed his lines in a manner reminiscent of his miss at White Hart Lane earlier in the season. However, with their team 1-0 down rather than 3-0 up, Liverpool fans didn’t find his miss as amusing this time.

Manquillo wasn’t too impressed with Balotelli either a few minutes a later when he took down Gerrard’s through ball and netted despite being fairly obviously offside. Had he stepped aside and let the ball go through, the onside and on-rushing Atletico Madrid loanee would have had a clear sight of goal from close range.

Liverpool’s final chance to level and steal what would have been a good point came in the form of a re-run of Steven Gerrard’s goal on Saturday four minutes from time. The number eight curled another free kick goalwards from 25 yards but, unlike Everton’s Tim Howard, Tomas Vaclik was up to the task of keeping the ball out, displaying a safe pair of hands as he made a decent save.

All in all, it was an evening that Kopites would like to quickly forget. A lack of desire was correctly cited by Gerrard on the final whistle as one of the reasons for the defeat, as Basel simply wanted it more than Liverpool. A damning indictment on the Reds, hopefully the captain’s stern words will strike a chord in the dressing room and re-birth the intensity and passion that came to characterise Liverpool’s performances last season.

Gerrard bemoaned a lack of desire from his teammates
It looks like Real Madrid, who eventually overcame minnows Ludogorets 2-1 in Bulgaria, will run away with Group B now, and it will be a battle between Liverpool and Basel for the runners up spot that will secure qualification for the knock-out stages. In fact, it could all come down to the Swiss side’s visit to Anfield on the final group stage match day at the beginning of December.

If that’s the case, then Liverpool will have to prove that they want it more than Basel on an evening when both teams will be desperate to progress. Hopefully the home crowd might just stir the players’ souls and inspire them to victory on what already seems destined to be a European night to remember at Anfield.


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