In less than two weeks we will know the full measure of Liverpool’s season. By the time the final whistle blows at Anfield on 21 December, Liverpool’s fate in the Champions League will have been decided, they will know whether they will be preparing for a League Cup semi-final and they will still be digesting next Sunday’s result against Manchester United.
In the wake of a sterile goalless draw against Sunderland, a team that had not won at Anfield for 31 years, the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, conceded that the first of those games, tomorrow’s encounter with Basel, might decide how the other results fall.
More than at any other club, Liverpool managers are judged on their performances in Europe. The Heysel ban in 1985 meant it was a reckoning only Kenny Dalglish of Anfield’s great helmsmen escaped, although given his thin European record at Blackburn, Newcastle and when he returned to Liverpool, you wonder what the club might have achieved in those lost years.
For Rodgers the reckoning is now. If the title decider against Chelsea last season was his most important game as Liverpool manager, then this is not far behind. Liverpool cracked against Chelsea at the end of April and although Rodgers would back himself and his team to overcome Basel at home, the certainties that sustained Liverpool’s title drive last season have begun to drain away.
This season they are averaging less than a goal a game in the Premier League at Anfield while in the Champions League they have found the net only against Ludogorets Razgrad.
“We only need one,” Rodgers said of the equation facing his team at Anfield tomorrow night. “Whether the team can handle the occasion, that’s what we will see. It’s having that calmness and composure.
“We know we will get great support, we are playing at home and no matter how we are playing we always expect to do well here.”
Aside from the 2-1 win over Southampton that opened the season – and which seems a very much better result now than it did then – it is hard to think of any home game where Liverpool have played above the standards they set themselves last year.
In this campaign they have failed to score against Sunderland, Hull and Aston Villa at Anfield. In those same fixtures last season they scored six times; half of those goals were put away by Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge and two by Steven Gerrard. Given that the first two will be, for differing reasons, absent against Basel, it explains why so much still rests on the 34-year-old Liverpool captain.
“I don’t think Stevie needs that pressure,” said Rodgers. “In big games he always makes the big contribution and I am sure everyone will see that on Tuesday.
“He has always been the star player. The legs may go a bit as you get older but you never lose the talent. His passing and his view of the game in the 25 minutes he was on against Sunderland were phenomenal.
“That is what can give the team a lift but it can’t just be about him. If we get through, it has got to be about the team and the performance.”
The team that Rodgers will field tomorrow will be an interesting one, mainly because it is likely to lack many of the signings brought to Merseyside at a cost of around £120m in the summer.
Last month in Sofia, Rodgers relied largely on the players he had with him last season, the ones he knew better and the ones he trusted more. Of the £120m worth of shopping by the club’s much-criticised transfer committee only two men started against Ludogorets – Javier Manquillo, who is on loan, and Rickie Lambert, who cost £3.2m and was bought as a bit-part player. The rest either watched the 2-2 draw from the bench, stayed at home or in Mario Balotelli’s case took themselves off to see some boxing in the build up. Rodgers is likely to play the same team tomorrow.
For Dejan Lovren, Lazar Markovic, Emre Can and maybe even Balotelli, who will be given a full season to prove himself, their day will come. Whether it will come at Liverpool is another question entirely.
EUROWATCH - BASEL KEEP UP AWAY RUN
Basel maintained their impressive away form before tomorrow’s Champions League visit to Liverpool, easing past bottom club Lucerne 3-0 on Saturday to cement their place at the top of the Swiss Super League. Two second-half goals from Argentine Matias Delgado and a third in injury time from Breel Embolo gave Paulo Sousa’s side a fourth straight win on their travels.Reuse content