Brendan Rodgers believes that if Liverpool get through tonight’s must-win Champions League fixture, they could end up actually winning the competition.
The Liverpool manager is confident that, should they beat Basel and reach the knockout stages, his club will have regrouped by the time the competition restarts in February.
By then Rodgers should have an attack spearheaded by a fit-again Daniel Sturridge and with a squad strengthened in the January transfer window. Chelsea, the last English team to win the European Cup, also struggled through their group.
There are already echoes of Liverpool’s triumphant European campaign a decade ago, when they took flight in the knockout phase after needing to beat Olympiakos in their final group game.
“That is the key for me,” said Rodgers. “Once you get through the group stage, anything can happen. I know come February, when it starts again, we will be a better team because of the players we’ll have available.
“We have seen that the best team doesn’t always win the competition. You can get a good draw, a bit of luck and, come February, we will have a good side that can do well.”
Nevertheless, it will not be the notional team Rodgers might field in two months’ time that will have to overcome the Swiss champions but the one that has failed to win four of its five Champions League group games. The one that failed to threaten Sunderland on Saturday, the one that played so leadenly when losing 1-0 to Basel in Switzerland. The one that is still overreliant on its captain, Steven Gerrard.
It is not a team that should intimidate Basel, who in recent seasons have won at Stamford Bridge and drawn at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane. It is the fact that Basel only need a point to make it through to the knockout phase that might give Liverpool their best chance.
While Rodgers’ requirements are clear, those of his opposite number, Paulo Sousa, are more complicated. Does the Basel manager attempt to sit back and soak up the pressure – something Sunderland managed without breaking sweat? Or does he go for the goal that would give his players breathing space in front of a sellout Anfield crowd?
“Both coaches will take a positive outlook,” said Rodgers. “Paulo knows his team can be content to be behind the ball and wait. For us it is about the balance between attack and defence but it is clear we need to win and we are at our best when on the front foot.”
Rodgers smiled when it was put to him that Carlo Ancelotti believed Basel were in much better shape than Liverpool. “We shall see tomorrow,” he grinned.
On the surface the Real Madrid manager is right. Basel are eight points clear in the Swiss Super League. Liverpool have stuttered through their season and are so short of forwards that Rodgers might name his 18-year-old striker Jerome Sinclair on the bench.
Nevertheless, this might be wishful thinking on Ancelotti’s part. The man who as manager of Milan was the ultimate victim of Liverpool’s post-Olympiakos revival a decade ago would want them out of the competition.
Unless Liverpool win, this might be Gerrard’s last taste of the Champions League with his contract extension unsigned and options such as joining Frank Lampard in the United States dangling in front of him.
“This is a competition with a great history and it is an opportunity for players other than Steven to write themselves into folklore,” said Rodgers. “We can’t just be reliant on Steven; the club has to be about other players and we can’t just place everything on his shoulders.
“We go into the game physically and mentally strong. Basel come here having lost their other away games [in Madrid and in Sofia to Ludogorets] and they understand they will be in for a tough night.
“We don’t need to win the game in the first minute. European football is technical and tactical and we have to retain our patience. If we do that and align ourselves with our great support, we have a great chance.”
A year ago, Liverpool went to White Hart Lane and annihilated Tottenham Hotspur 5-0, a result that cost Andre Villas-Boas his job. For Rodgers, it proved the catalyst for an electrifying series of results that so nearly carried them to the Championship.
There is more to Liverpool’s recent history than the Gerrard-inspired victory over Olympiakos and the hope must be that, 12 months on from the demolition of Spurs, history repeats and a victory can act as a push for the rest of the campaign.
“The key is to get a big win,” said Rodgers. “We’ve had some big performances in my time at Liverpool and now we need another.”
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