In their pomp, Liverpool would have torn a team from Basel apart. Even a decade ago, the Swiss should not have posed a problem. Indeed, even today, you wouldn’t rank Basel that highly – on paper, that is. But their record deserves some examination, while Liverpool’s demands some explanation.
Liverpool fans keep carrying around banners claiming their club is “European royalty” and lifting placards with five gleaming trophies evidencing the club’s heritage, but it counts for nothing anymore – football, like most aspects of life, is about the here and now. Liverpool have long been cast as also-rans, a story of sad decline and an inability to keep pace with the true big guns of modern European football: Real, Barca, Chelsea (yes, Chelsea – history has been acquired) and Bayern. Liverpool, like the Italian giants of the past, are no longer in the same bracket.
Only one English team won its Champions League group. Arsenal laboured at first but came through in second place, City made absolute heavy weather of their group and Liverpool showed they are just not Business Class when it comes to flying around the continent. Steven Gerrard knew it, displayed it, agonized over it, and the result could be that Anfield’s favourite son will decide that another contract might be too painful to consider. Given he’s done his shift, he won’t get death threats next time he decides to call it a day.
But where does this leave Brendan Rodgers? I would say it could be the beginning of the end for a man who was being canonised only a few months ago. Liverpool have proved that they were a one man band relying on a striker with a predilection for human flesh. Rodgers spent heavily in the summer to, supposedly, strengthen a team that just fell short in the title race in 2013-14. But he’s bought more kippers than a Billingsgate fishmonger.
Rodgers opted to deepen his squad instead of bringing a trophy signing to the club. With Luis Suarez’s departure, Liverpool netted £75m that was largely channeled into a war chest for the manager. He spent £116m, almost £70m of which was thrown Southampton’s way as he decimated their squad: Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Devran Lovren all defected to Anfield. Lambert for Saurez was always going to look like folly, so in desperation, Mario Balotelli arrived for £ 16m. There was a reason why the wayward and ill-disciplined Sicilian was playing back in Serie A, and Liverpool are now aware of it – it was a gamble that has yet to pay off. Of the eight players signed in the close season, only Lovren and Lambert started against Basel. Moreno and Markovic came on as substitutes. This implies Rodgers is realising he has not spent wisely.
There’s also a growing feeling that Liverpool’s doomed flourish was a fluke and really a case of opportunism, in much the way that Arsenal were “champions of Autumn”. Why? United were in decline, City were trying to assimilate a fresh batch of recruits, including a new manager, and Chelsea were trying to get their heads round Mourinho 2.0 and determine who they wanted to keep and who they would buy to recreate 2004. There was some transition going on – all three clubs were under new managership.
Arsenal had signed Ozil, so they were flying for a while and Liverpool seized the moment and started to build confidence. Once City had found their feet under Pellegrini, they finished the season well, and as champions. Chelsea were also coming up on the outside, establishing momentum that has continued into 2014-15. Arsenal realized that they were scarcely better off and as ever, suffered from injuries and some misfortune. Liverpool’s chance of the title was 2013-14 and they slipped on their behinds when it was within touching distance.
That may also be why they have been a shadow of the team that threatened to end the club’s 24-year wait for a title. Two games, Chelsea at home and Palace away, knocked the heart out of Liverpool and the hangover has just worn on. The loss of Suarez has been catastrophic and the new men have not delivered. Rodgers has a weaker team than a year ago and it’s almost been by design. He will undoubtedly pay for it with his job, either this season or early into 2015-16.
Can Rodgers turn it around? Much depends on how (or if) his summer signings integrate into the squad. It seems likely that Balotelli will not be at Liverpool come next summer, but with such an unpredictable talent, who knows? If Rodgers starts to get something out of his players, Liverpool could climb the table, but very little smart money will be placed on that outcome at present.
Rodgers could salvage something in both the Capital One Cup and Europa League. They’re not the Premier or the UEFA Champions League, but it may give Liverpool something to focus on in the months ahead.
But Liverpool’s failure and outlook has already started to yield problems among Rodgers’ squad. Raheem Sterling is a rare talent and at just 20, he could develop into a true great of the modern game. But Champions League exits have a habit of turning a young man’s head and there’s rumours Real Madrid have their eye on Sterling. Without him, and the Reds have had a £ 70,000 per week offer rejected by the youngster (!), Liverpool will be further weakened. They cannot really afford for that to happen, otherwise like many European kingdoms from the past, the old leaders may continue to sink further into exile.