Liverpool out of Champions League after 10-man Reds fail to beat Basel
Ten-man Liverpool were masters of their own downfall as they exited the Champions League after coming up short in their must-win encounter at home to Basel.
Steven Gerrard, 10 years and one day exactly since he rammed home that famous goal against Olympiacos which set them on the path to their fifth European Cup, did his best to change their fate — again — with a late free-kick but he needed others to contribute more and they failed.
Trailing to Fabian Frei’s 25th-minute goal, the hosts had Lazar Markovic sent off 16 minutes after coming on at half-time for an flick of the arm. And although a late trademark set-piece goal from the captain raised hopes, they had left themselves too much to do and a 1-1 draw saw them knocked out.
The omens were not good from the off after Liverpool were denied the calming influence of Kolo Toure, itself an indicator of their defensive frailties, because of a groin injury.
Dejan Lovren came in for his first start in five matches but it was centre-back partner Martin Skrtel who seemed to suffer most as his slip let in Shkelzen Gashi who drilled high into the Kop.
The troublesome Basel winger also had the ball in the net just before half-time but his strike was ruled out for offside.
Marco Streller, who scored the goal in Switzerland which partly accounted for the Reds being in this mess, had a shot blocked by Glen Johnson six yards out and also turned an awkward volley wide.
But it was Frei’s strike from 20 yards, after a one-two with Luca Zuffi, which whistled past goalkeeper Simon Mignolet who could only stand and watch midway through the first half.
By contrast Liverpool’s attacking was sporadic and disjointed even with Gerrard restored to his attacking role behind the central striker.
Manager Brendan Rodgers had called for players other than him to write their name into the club’s folklore but those he selected appeared not to have heard that message.
Raheem Sterling was one of the chief culprits as, having been presented with a shooting opportunity by Behrang Safari’s mis-control, he tried to cut back to his captain instead.
The criticism of Rodgers’ squad is that, since the departure of Luis Suarez, Gerrard is their only world-class player.
There was certainly no-one on the same wavelength as him when he received the ball in the hole and spun a pass out to the right wing which neither Sterling nor Johnson had anticipated.
The rain which began to fall just before half-time seemed somewhat symbolic.
Rodgers made a bold decision at the interval and sent on Markovic, possibly the most disappointing of his £20million summer signings, and Alberto Moreno for striker Rickie Lambert and Jose Enrique.
Sterling was pushed into an unfamiliar central role in an attempt to utilise his blistering pace but before he could get into his stride Liverpool’s job was made even more difficult by the dismissal of Markovic.
As the Serbia international broke on the halfway line he flicked out a hand to keep Safari at bay, and if he was surprised by the defender’s collapse to the floor he was astounded to see Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers brandish a red card.
On the touchline Rodgers turned away with his head in his hands.
With his side at a numerical disadvantage the onus appeared to fall even more on Gerrard, but when he charged onto Sterling’s pass he could not muster enough speed in a race with goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik, who got the vital first touch to prevent the concession of a penalty as the Reds captain went sprawling.
But Gerrard was not finished and, 3,653 days since scoring at the same Kop end to write his name large in the club’s history book as they beat Greek opponents by the two clear goals necessary, his free-kick into the top corner off the post cranked the atmosphere up to ‘famous European night’ level but unfortunately for the home side this was no to be St Etienne or Olympiacos.
The Europa League now beckons for Rodgers’ team, which considering their inconsistent domestic form is probably the last thing they need.
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