It's still hard to judge just how hard we should come down on this Liverpool team when they inevitably find ways to muck up golden opportunities. On one hand, it's mind-boggling that Liverpool, the reigning Premier League runners-up, could fail to advance to the Round of 16 in an obscenely favorable Champions League group. On the other, this is a squad that sold off last season's best player, has missed the prior year's number two due to injuries, and has seen the player brought in to supplement their departed talisman fail to impress on the pitch and recently go down injured himself. Honestly, what's left simply isn't that good.
Still, though. To have the opportunity to beat little old Basel at home to guarantee a spot in the knockout rounds and fail to grasp it is pretty sad.
To be fair to the Reds, you couldn't pin yesterday's 1-1 draw on a lack of desire. From about the moment Fabian Frei capped an opening period of Basel dominance with a perfectly aimed shot that skipped by Simon Mignolet and into the back of the net, Liverpool ran like a brood of headless chickens in search for goals. Every time Liverpool regained possession, they'd rush the ball forward and push up in numbers to try to score. Every time they lost the ball, they'd sprint backwards en masse, surrounding Basel's ball carriers like a swarm of hornets, constantly trying to sting the ball back. Up and down the pitch they ran, sending through ball after intercepted through ball between the defense, pressing for the goal that would change the game but maybe doing so a little too hard. When you need two goals, it's sometimes hard to remember you have to score them one at a time.
Dejan Lovren protests Lazar Marković's red card. Photo via Getty
Half-time sub Lazar Marković was one of the most frantically energetic performers during that spell just after the break where it felt like Liverpool might change the tide. Whenever he had the ball, he'd burst forward in search of space for himself and teammates, and when he lost the ball, Marković tore back after it so as to spark another dangerous counter. It fit the story of Liverpool's season thus far, then, when Marković fought off a defender challenging his run by jutting his fingers in an opponent's face, apparently making contact with the eye of an Basel player. This offense lead to a straight red card in 61st minute. Ten-man Liverpool needed two goals to prevent yet another high-profile failure in a season full of them.
Still, the Reds fought on. By that point Basel were content to sit back and wait out whatever onslaught Liverpool could muster when down a man while also hunting for an insurance goal on the counter. The home team ran as hard as ever, yet weren't able to actually create many dangerous chances. Indeed, for most of the second half, it looked like the visitors would snatch a goal when attacking the completely exposed Liverpool back line, but they weren't able to get any of their shots into the net.
If for most of the second half Liverpool players darted every which way around the pitch, then, for the match's final 10 minutes, Steven Gerrard's equalizer somehow pushed them into overdrive. His free kick in the 81st minute was literally perfect. An inch higher or lower, to the left or right, and Stevie G's banana bender gets either saved or smacks off the crossbar and back into the field of play rather than ricocheting into the back of the net.
Steven Gerrard celebrates scoring the tying goal. Photo via AP
That thin little rescue rope of a goal gave the entire stadium newfound belief that their boys could finish off the highly improbable comeback. Liverpool sent ball after ball into the box, only for Basel to clear them away. Liverpool sent shot after shot towards goal, only for Basel's keeper to watch the attempt either sail off target or directly into his arms. The best chance the Reds had to win, a Jordan Henderson header that deflected off the arm of an Basel player, wrong-footing the goalkeeper and bouncing towards goal, was eventually easily scooped up by Tomás Vaclik as the deflection took all the pace off of the shot. Alas, the late surge wasn't enough, and Basel hung on to the draw that saw them through to the next round.
This result provides Liverpool no more answers than when they entered. They still aren't good enough, both in terms of talent and maximizing the abilities of the players actually available to them, and that remains issue number one. However, the team does not give up, and whether that's out of basic professionalism, the hunger to win, or proof that manager Brendan Rodgers is still able to motivate his players, it's at least evidence that the dressing room itself isn't the problem.
In an ideal world, Liverpool probably would've been best served by winning this match and getting bounced in the next round, a perfectly noble end to their UCL return. That would've given them more time to focus on the Premier League and the battle to retain their Champions League place in next season's competition.
Their reality is a lot less appealing. Third place in the group sends them on to the Europa League and its interminable travel, odd match times, and the inevitable fatigue that comes along with everything Europa. But the Reds can't just tank that tournament for an early exit to rededicate themselves to the Prem. The winner of this year's Europa League gets a spot in next season's Champions League, which incentivizes clubs like Liverpool, who aren't sure bets to finish high enough in their domestic table, to field their strongest teams every Thursday in the chase for the money and prestige of the big tournament.
In light of that, Liverpool's failure this Champions League campaign is doubly troublesome. At this moment, you'd have to make Arsenal and Manchester United stronger favorites to finish 3rd and 4th behind Chelsea and Man City, which would make Liverpool's UCL return a one-year blip on the sustained slump they thought they'd broken out of last year. The top four is still far from settled, and Liverpool are in no way out of the running for one of those spots should things turn around for them, but recent evidence doesn't look promising.
Competing to win the Europa League, then, might be their best shot at making the UCL, which would then earn them the funds and allure necessary to attract the quality of player the club desperately needs to become Liverpool again. In the end, it might be the hunt for Champions League play via a Europa title that keeps them out of Champions League play via the top four. Liverpool's problems have only begun.
Top image via Getty