Football: Back to drawing board for limping Liverpool

Football: Back to drawing board for limping Liverpool
Liverpool's English striker Rickie Lambert (L) and Liverpool's English midfielder Steven Gerrard (C) line up to defend a corner during the UEFA Champions League group B football match between Liverpool and Basel at Anfield in Liverpool, north west England, on December 9, 2014.

LIVERPOOL - Liverpool can only hope that their elimination from the Champions League heralds the end of a vertiginous downward spiral that began with Steven Gerrard's infamous slip against Chelsea last season.

Since Gerrard lost his footing on April 27, gifting Demba Ba a goal that set Chelsea on their way to a 2-0 win that tilted the Premier League title race in Manchester City's favour, Liverpool have lost their way.

Luis Suarez left for Barcelona. Some £116 million ($181.8 million, 146.8 million euros) was spent on new players who have yet to convince, with Mario Balotelli the most conspicuous disappointment. Daniel Sturridge has succumbed to a succession of injuries.

And after making a dismal start to the Premier League season, Tuesday's 1-1 draw at home to Basel saw Liverpool's return to the Champions League following a five-year absence ended after only 85 days.

Gerrard's late equaliser from a free-kick briefly gave Anfield hope of a comeback to compare with the glorious European fightbacks of yesteryear, but in sum, the performance was a microcosm of all Liverpool's current ills.

With Sturridge and Balotelli both injured, the powerful but limited Rickie Lambert - a close-season recruit from Southampton - started up front, but lasted only 45 minutes.

Both he and Balotelli were signed to provide alternatives to the mobility and guile of Sturridge, but in the former Chelsea striker's absence, Liverpool look bereft of pace and inventiveness at centre-forward.

Last season, when Liverpool narrowly missed out on a first league title in 24 years, their dominance of possession enabled them to push and pull teams out of position before either Suarez or Sturridge would pounce.

With neither Suarez nor Sturridge in the team, there is an aimlessness to their ball circulation, and against Basel that was only exacerbated by the nerves of the Anfield crowd.

Manager Brendan Rodgers's biggest summer signing, Adam Lallana, did not even make it off the bench, while Lazar Markovic, a £20 million recruit from Benfica, injected purpose and directness after coming on at half-time, only to be sent off for flinging a hand at Behrang Safari.

Sturridge 'devastated'

In defence, Liverpool continue to look vulnerable, with goalkeeper Simon Mignolet's confidence at a low ebb after a string of recent errors and Dejan Lovren seemingly incapable of exuding the reassurance he was signed from Southampton to provide.

Gerrard looked off the pace for long periods against Basel, although his fine, arcing free-kick proved that, even at 34 and amid uncertainty about his future, he remains the man for the big occasion.

Liverpool's defence is marginally less porous than it was last season, conceding an average of 1.27 goals per league game compared to 1.32 in 2013-14, but when the forwards only average 1.27 goals per game at the other end, the sums do not make for encouraging reading.

As well as losing three and drawing two of their six Champions League group games - scoring only five goals - they have already lost six times in the league and also dropped points in frustrating 0-0 draws at home to Hull City and Sunderland.

Sunday's trip to a Manchester United team on a five-game winning run portends further gloom.

But with only six points between Liverpool and the Champions League places, all is not lost just yet, while victory at second-tier Bournemouth next week will take them into the League Cup semi-finals.

Rodgers believes that by the spring, with Sturridge back from injury and the new players having bedded in, Liverpool will be a different prospect, capable of mounting a challenge in both the league and the Europa League.

Watching Tuesday's game at home, Sturridge tweeted: "Sat here devastated wishing I could have helped. We'll come back stronger from this and I'm working hard to do the same." For Liverpool's supporters, that turnaround cannot come too quickly.

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