Liverpool left the Champions League in the worst way possible
It’s not just that Liverpool have been knocked out of the Champions League. It’s how they got knocked out that will cause the real concern.
Not with a bang, then. Nor exactly with a whimper. With a combination of the two, perhaps: a startlingly poor first hour followed by a madcap, briefly promising, ultimately futile flurry. Liverpool’s return to the Champions League lasted no longer than it absolutely had to, six group games and no further, and it would be hard to conclude that the competition will be poorer for their absence.
The blunt numbers are miserable enough. Six games played and just one win achieved, and that against the willing but limited Ludogorets Razgrad. Just the five goals scored, and four of those against the Bulgarian champions; until Steven Gerrard stroked home last night’s late hope-teaser, Liverpool had gone nearly six hours without scoring against either Real Madrid or Basel. “We have not been good enough to go through,” said Brendan Rodgers, and his captain agreed: “You always qualify over the six games and unfortunately we haven’t been good enough.” Apologetic noises for sorry results.
There’s not much consolation beyond the brute facts either. Across six games, did Liverpool ever really play well? The half hour after Markovic’s dismissal, perhaps, when Basel seemed to forget that they were the team with the extra man. Away at Madrid, maybe, though “we picked a weird team, we didn’t get hammered, and Kolo Touré was fun” isn’t quite the definition of glory. Muted away at Basel, careless away at Ludogorets, and clinically peeled apart at home to Madrid, even their one win came in the last minute, came against the weakest team in the group, and came thanks to a penalty that owed everything to the silliness of the opposing goalkeeper. It’s hard to see how things could have been more underwhelming.
The problems are familiar ones, the same that have hampered Liverpool in the Premier League. Milquetoast goalkeeping, chaotic defending, pedestrian midfielding and damp attacking. Peculiar managerial decisions, uncertain switches of attacking shape and emphasis, all reinforced by some questionable transfer business and the occasional curious omission from team or squad (Fabio Borini isn’t great, and may not even be good, but when the alternative is a visibly shattered Rickie Lambert?) The perpetual conundrum of where exactly on the pitch Gerrard should stand, and who should stand next to him. The absence not only of Luis Suárez but also last season’s second-best Premier League striker, Daniel Sturridge, and the paucity of options behind them.
Domestic woes can be set aside in Europe: look at Borussia Dortmund, whose hideous form in Germany hasn’t prevented them finishing top of their group. And the competition rewards those who charge at it in the appropriate fashion: look at Tottenham, the last English club to gatecrash the established Premier League order and have a crack at Champions League. They didn’t win the thing, but they tore into the competition like it was the most important event of their lives, and were duly rewarded with the sight of Peter Crouch scoring the winner in the San Siro. (What a wonderful sentence that is).
Perhaps that’s the most disappointing thing of all: that the domestic campaign has been able to so easily infect their European efforts. That Liverpool’s players were unable to rouse themselves (or their management were unable to rouse them) for this competition, that the pomp of Zadok the Priest couldn’t wash away their cares. The Champions League is a special tournament for the club accountants, but it’s also the European Cup. It matters. And it matters an awful lot to Liverpool; as you may have heard, they’ve won the thing five times, and are appropriately proud of having done so. At the draw for the group stage, Liverpool’s CEO Ian Ayre announced that “this is our competition”. It might have been nice if he’d told the players.
Failure isn’t always a disaster; nobody knows better than this Liverpool that it’s possible to miss out on silverware and yet feel mighty fine about how things have gone. But meek failure, limp failure, failure that never really threatens to look anything like success … that’s the stuff of which misery is made. One of Anfield’s many banners depicts six silhouettes of the big-eared trophy, five bearing the years of those five triumphs — 77, 78, 81, 84, 05 — and the sixth bearing a question mark. The intended effect is, presumably, a statement of intent, yet as the minutes ticked down against Basel it looked slightly desperate, even plangent. Less “Next!” and more “But … but when?”
Not this year. Not next year, either, unless their league form picks up or they win the Europa League, a competition that may not contain anybody as good as Real Madrid but contains plenty of teams as good as or better than Basel. According to a recent piece in the Sunday Times, Fenway Sports Group’s plan for Liverpool is predicated on regular Champions League football from 2015-16. So unless something changes somewhere, come next May Rodgers, who finished last season well ahead of schedule, could well find himself behind the targets of his paymasters. And that way lies trouble.
Alternatively, perhaps trouble lurks just around the corner. After a game like this, after a disappointment like this, the last thing Rodgers needs to see in his diary is “Manchester United (away)” followed by “Arsenal (home)”. Not because either opponent is at their best — given the way everybody’s been defending, we recommend lumping on the 6-6 draw — but because things are set up perfectly for some thoroughly unflattering comparisons. The equivalent fixtures last season were two of Liverpool’s signature performances: a 3-0 embarrassment of a Moyesy mess at United, and that ludicrous 5-1 savaging of a hopelessly vulnerable Arsenal.
It is almost impossible to conceive of this Liverpool side, of these players in this moment, scoring eight goals in two games. It is hard to see them taking two wins, and the suspicion is that Rodgers would happily accept a couple of draws. But even more concerning is the fact that whatever the eventual results, neither United or Arsenal will be looking at the fixture and thinking “oh, heck, that lot”. Nor will anybody else, for the rest of the season.
Liverpool weren’t perfect last season, but they were absolutely terrifying. This season, they only seem scared of themselves. Crashing out of the Champions League would have been disappointing. Apologising out of it, well, that’s almost unforgivable, and might well turn out to be untenable.