Liverpool crash out of Champions League following Basel battle
Liverpool must face the realities of Thursday night football, following a thrilling draw with Champions League Group B foes Basel. Their continental adventures now to be restricted to the Europa League, which they are 12/1 to win with Coral.
Brendan Rodgers’ Reds knew only a win would do to see them scrape passage into the knockout phase, but could not muster enough spirit to carry them over the line.
At Anfield, a lack of firepower and, at times belief, was evident, despite skipper Steve Gerrard’s sensational set piece sparking a second half revival.
The veteran midfielder’s excellent effort came far too late, however, and Rodgers must act quickly to restore confidence and repair damage ahead of the upcoming derby against Manchester United.
Swiss champions Basel were quick out of the blocks, deservedly capitalising on the home team’s nerves and sloppy passing out of defence, to ruin what had been hailed as a triumphant Reds return to Europe’s top table.
Fabian Frei pounced following a slick exchange around the penalty box, rifling a sweetly struck shot into the bottom right hand corner. Much-criticised stopper Simon Mignolet was frozen in place as the strike sailed past, and Frei appeared to have the luxury of simply picking a spot.
Liverpool’s surprise at the early goal typified their performance in the first half, and in the Champions League overall this term, as they allowed the opposition to take a foothold on their own turf.
Albania international Taulant Xhaka was a revelation at wingback, providing Jose Enrique and later Alberto Moreno constant problems from wide, with only his woeful finishing preventing the elder brother of Granit from making a bigger impression.
Composed centre half pairing Fabian Schar and Marek Suchy kept the visitors calm at the back, and Basel appeared to be first to every ball, but the Reds looked far from a side striving to ensure they stayed in the competition.
Rickie Lambert, in particular, struggled up front, toiling with little service, as sidelined Mario Balotelli looked on from the stands.
Rodgers’ decision to pull on fresh faces after the break paid dividends, and finally saw the hosts surge into life, with Raheem Sterling redeployed up top.
Skillful substitute Lazar Markovic showed tantalising glimpses of his past Benfica promise, unsettling the now edgy visitors with his pace and directness.
Suddenly Basel were on the backfoot, but Markovic’s impact was to be short-lived, as the Serbian wingman saw red for raising his hand to Behrang Safari after just 15 minutes on the pitch.
While the decision seemed harsh, the Reds can have few complaints, as Markovic may not have made enough contact to injure, but left an arm flailing into his competitor’s face just the same.
Liverpool appeared to be awakened by a sense of injustice, however, with captain Gerrard’s curling free-kick allowing the Kop a brief glimmer of hope.
Rodgers’ men pressed on relentlessly, but could not carve out a much-needed winner. Their huff and puff lifted the crowd and saw Basel clinging to their survival, making for an intense final 20 minutes.
The Swiss side provided their own threat on the counter but after Gerrard’s collision with opposition stopper Tomas Vaclik was dismissed, Liverpool knew it was not the day for another famous comeback.
Their focus must now be on chasing their Red Devils rivals, and surprise package West Ham United, to pinch a top four spot, which they are 11/4 to do.