Thoughts On Liverpool’s Champions League Elimination


Expectations were muted for Liverpool with their return to the Champions League. They would have to overcome Brendan Rodgers first foray into the highest level of European football, competing with the same squad for the first time in Europe, and the loss of Luis Suarez. However, when they drew Real Madrid, Basel, and Ludogorets Razgrad qualification in second place was rightly expected.

Crucially, forward Daniel Sturridge was injured on September 5, during training for the England National Team, and was not fit to play in any of Liverpool’s Champions League matches. His contribution was intended to be vital because he was needed to lead Liverpool’s attack while Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert, Luis Suarez’s replacements, integrated themselves into the squad.

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  • Balotelli scored his only Champions League goal and one of only two scored by a Liverpool forward in the 82’ minute of Liverpool’s 2-1 first round victory over Ludogorets. Ludogorets sat in a deep 4-4-2 formation pulling their forwards Roman Bezjak and Marcellinho deep leaving Liverpool’s centerbacks and Gerrard free to dictate play from deep in an attempt to force Liverpool to play down their flanks. Gerrard sat where he could find space and deep rotated possession between the flanks.

    In the 90’ minute Sterling was dispossessed in attack leaving all of Liverpool’s central midfielders, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, and Lucas Leiva, caught in advanced positions leaving substitute Younes Hamza free in space to receive a pass and play in Dani Abalo behind Liverpool’s defense line. He leveled the score at one with only stoppage time remaining. A defensive error by goalkeeper Milan Borjan led him to foul Fabio Borini in the penalty box giving Liverpool a late penalty attempt that Gerrard converted giving Liverpool a 2-1 victory and the three points.

    Liverpool’s second round match away to Basel began a three-match Champions League run where they did not score a goal. Balotelli only registered one shot on goal, a free kick from distance and Liverpool’s front three only recorded three shots on target in the entire match. With Liverpool playing a front three against Basel’s 3-4-3, their wingers Sterling and Markovic became Liverpool’s most important players. They were responsible for tracking the runs of Basel’s wingbacks because Liverpool’s fullbacks were occupied by Basel’s wingers.

    On the counter attack, they were responsible for creating a three versus three overload against Basel’s centerbacks by making attacking runs against their opposition’s advanced wingbacks. This would have left Basel with no defensive cover and vulnerable to Liverpool attacks. They did neither well and were much less threatening than Basel’s wide players who offered a regular threat from wide areas and they were not able to exploit Gerrard’s direct passing attempts from deep. Basel was comfortable in possession as Liverpool’s central midfielders gave them too much space in their possession and they were not able to take advantage of their three versus two midfield advantage. In the 52nd minute Basel scored a soft goal off of a corner kick and Sterling wasted Liverpool’s best scoring opportunities in the second half, with Basel easing to a 1-0 victory.

    The buildup to Liverpool’s comprehensive 3-0 loss to Real Madrid was billed as an opportunity for Liverpool to reintroduce itself as a European heavyweight. After one half of football it became abundantly clear that Liverpool still had miles to travel to regain its former glory.

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    The same problems that had plagued Liverpool during their disappointing Premier League season had bled into their Champions League form. All of their failings were put on display for the world to see. In one half of football Liverpool only had one shot on goal, a deep effort from their holding midfielder Steven Gerrard. Gerrard was also responsible for not tracking a run by Cristiano Ronaldo, allowing him to score Real Madrid’s opening goal. Karim Benzema scored Madrid’s second and third goals off of cheap opportunities given off of lazy defending. The second half became a session of keep-ball as the Madridistas showed difference in class between the sides.

    Rodgers did the unthinkable in their next match away to Real Madrid. For a club that prides itself on its European success and famous European nights, to rest multiple starters for a match at the Santiago Bernabéu was unforgivable. Even thought Liverpool were desperate for a victory on the upcoming weekend home to Chelsea, and they had been outplayed by Real Madrid at home, this was an opportunity to add a chapter to Liverpool’s club legacy and potentially snatch points away from the current European Champion.

    With seven starters missing from their previous Champions League match including Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, and Mario Balotelli, Liverpool were forced to ‘park a bus’ in front of their goal in an attempt to steal points. Benzema scored a goal in the 26th minute meaning Liverpool left Madrid in last place in their group, three points behind second place Basel and level on points with Ludogorets.

    Swansea outplayed Liverpool all game, but two late goals and a red card for Federico Fernandez sent the Swans home from the Capital One Cup.

    Balotelli injured himself on international duty with the Italian National Team forcing him to miss out on Liverpool’s last two Champions League matches, with the responsibility falling to Rickie Lambert, a 32-year-old serviceable forward who has spent the majority of his career in the English lower divisions. In the penultimate match both Liverpool and Ludogorets conceded cheap goals in the first eight minutes of the match to the opposition’s center forward, giving Liverpool their second and final goal from a forward in the Champions League group stage.

    Both teams, hesitant to give up a second goal in a match where the loser would have a slight opportunity to advance to the knockout stages, sat in an organized 4-4-2 press with their center forward dropping deep and looked to create scoring opportunities against exposed defenses. This created a methodical and tense match with both teams looking to not create the mistake that could knock them out of the Champions League. In the 36th minute Liverpool capitalized off of one of these mistakes and Sterling was able to create a chance that Henderson finished giving them a 2-1 lead heading into halftime.

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  • Save two or three half chances Liverpool was comfortable enough sitting in their 4-4-2, letting Ludogorets have possession, and attacking on the counter attack. However, they struggled to create scoring chances as Lambert was not able to play in behind his opposition’s defensive line and Liverpool’s wingers were isolated when they did attack.

    In the 81st minute Sterling wasted a scoring opportunity when he was played in behind Ludogorets’ defensive line. This surely would have sealed the victory and three point for Liverpool. For the fourth time in five Champions League matches Liverpool conceded a goal off of a corner kick, in the 88th minute, this time costing them the win and two points. Now Liverpool trailed second place Basel by two points with a matchup between the two at Anfield and only a win would see them advance to the Champions League knockout stages.

    Basel, knowing they did not need to score to advance to the knockout stages, attempted to occupy all of Liverpool’s attacking players by playing a 4-3-3 formation, with one holding midfielder and two central midfielders, to occupy Liverpool’s 4-2-3-1 formation that played two holding midfielders and one central attacking midfielder. This left all of Liverpool’s players marked and limited the space they had to create and finish scoring opportunities.

    With Gerrard now playing higher up as a central attacking midfielder there was no player to offer the necessary service to facilitate Liverpool’s direct style of play. Their attacking midfielders, Sterling, Gerrard, and Henderson, were forced to drop deep to gain possession of the ball when they all were most dangerous having balls played in front of them so they could run onto the ball. Liverpool was pressed by Basel in their own defensive half and the lightweight double pivot of Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen was overpowered by Basel’s central midfield pairing of Luca Zuffi and Mohammed Elneny. Predictably, Liverpool struggled to maintain consistent possession in their attacking half. Basel controlled the first half and took a one goal lead into halftime, meaning Liverpool now had to score two goals to advance, after the 25th minute goal from Fabian Frei.

    Liverpool’s Mario Balotelli – Flickr Creative Commons

    “There is no better illustration of the importance of Suarez and the subsequent failure in the previous summer transfer window to replace him, than the sight of Sterling leading Liverpool’s line at the beginning of a second half when they would need two goals to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League…”

    There is no better illustration of the importance of Suarez and the subsequent failure in the previous summer transfer window to replace him, than the sight of Sterling leading Liverpool’s line at the beginning of a second half when they would need two goals to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League. The second half was a much more balanced affair with Lazar Markovic making threatening runs down the right flank, however he had no target in the box and many Liverpool crosses were easily dealt with by Basel.

    In the 60th minute all looked lost for Liverpool when Markovic was given a straight red card for swatting Basel defender Behrang Safari in the face and now Liverpool had to do the impossible. In their attempt to score two goals they were now forced to open up and expand the area of play, a tactic that favored Basel, the side with the extra player. The match swayed back in forth with both sides wasting scoring opportunities until the 81st minute when Gerrard curled a free kick into the top left corner leaving Liverpool one goal away from the Champions League Round of 16.

    A ravenous crowd forcibly attempted to will Liverpool to victory, their players confidently attacked looking for their salvation, and Basel started crumbling under the weight of a famous European Anfield night. Liverpool could taste their victory and in the 86’ minute a deflected cross was inches away from giving Liverpool the lead they were desperate to acquire.

    In the end it was not enough and Liverpool bowed out of the Champions League to Thursday nights and joined the chase for the Europa League title. They were doomed by the same failings that have them sitting in ninth place, six points outside of fourth place and qualifying for next seasons Champions League playoff.

    The failure of Balotelli and Lambert to provide any consistant play and scoring threat led to Liverpool only scoring five goals in six matches, four against Ludogorets. The unwillingness of Rodgers to bring in an experienced and complete holding midfielder to compete with Gerrard left Liverpool with no foundation in center midfield. The club icon struggled to provide the needed defensive cover and Lucas and Allen did not provide the passing range needed to provide service to Liverpool’s direct attacking players. Liverpool conceded too many cheap goals including four from corner kicks that cost them three points, the points that would have advanced them to the knockout stages. That, along with a handful of wasted chances by Raheem Sterling was enough to end Liverpool’s Champions League quest.