Liverpool have a chance to lift some of the gloom around Anfield on Tuesday night when they take on Swiss champions Basel for a place in the last 16 of the Champions League. Brendan Rodgers’s side stuttered to a goalless draw at home to Sunderland on Saturday to leave last season’s Premier League runners-up ninth in the standings after a hugely disappointing start to the campaign. Still, despite not exactly excelling in Europe, either, a win on Tuesday would take Liverpool, and not Basel, in the Champions League knockout phase for the first time since the 2009-09 season.
That was the fifth straight time that Liverpool had progressed out of the group as they became a consistent force on the continent under Rafa Benitez. And on Tuesday it will be 10 years and one day since one of the most memorable moments in the club’s recent history, when Steven Gerrard produced what has become a trademark heroic late strike to get the goal Liverpool needed against Olympiakos to make it out of their group.
Liverpool, of course, would go onto lift the trophy in Istanbul the following May in one of the more unlikely runs to the Champions League title in history. Were the same to happen this time around, it would potentially top even the events of 2004-05. Liverpool have been a shadow of the attacking side that thrilled supporters and neutrals alike last season. Their five Champions League games to date have produced just four goals, all coming against Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets, telling the story of their season. Having lost Luis Suarez to Barcelona, Liverpool have been unable to field Daniel Sturridge throughout the group phase due to injury. Maria Balotelli also remains on the sidelines, although, like all of Liverpool’s summer signings, he has hardly set Anfield alight then he has been fit.
Still, Liverpool have now gone four matches without defeat and their previously porous defense has conceded just two goals in three matches. A clean sheet won’t be enough on Tuesday, however. Basel go into the game two points above the Merseysiders and will progress with a draw or a win. Rodgers has called upon his side to relish having to go out and take the initiative.
“We know what we have to do and that's the key,” he told Liverpool’s official website. “We don't need to play for a draw. We need to win the game. This is a team that is at its best when it's on the front foot. And that's what we'll look to do on Tuesday night.”
“Tuesday night will be a big night here. We need to qualify. That was the objective at the beginning of the competition. The players are excited and they are looking forward to it. As am I. We felt it would maybe come down to this game and that's proven to be the case. So we'll look forward to it. It's important the fans, as always, will give us great support. But it's going to be a night of patience as well.”
In order to continue in the competition, Liverpool will have to get past a side that has made a habit of toppling English opposition of late. Indeed, in each of the last three seasons, Basel have beaten a side from the Premier League. Last season they beat Chelsea twice in the Champions League group stage, a year after knocking Tottenham out of the Europa League quarterfinals. And in 2011-12, they beat Manchester United in the final round of the group phase to stunningly eliminate the three-time European champions.
Now under the charge of much-traveled former Swansea City coach, Paulo Sousa, Basel have had to cope with losing several of their leading players in recent times, but they will arrive at Anfield in fine form. A 1-0 home defeat to Group B winners Real Madrid was the only time they have failed to win in their last eight matches.
Prediction: The match is set up perfectly for a trademark special European night at Anfield and perhaps yet another moment of inspiration from Liverpool’s captain. Gerrard and Liverpool have benefited of late from Lucas Leiva coming into the side to occupy the holding midfield role in which the veteran has struggled. But, with a win required, will Rodgers be more adventurous and leave out Lucas against Basel? The Swiss side have suffered disappointing results in both away matches in this season’s Champions League, losing heavily at Real Madrid and then being beaten by Ludogorets. But they will be far from pushovers. The crowd could certainly lift Liverpool over the line, but there is nothing to suggest it will be straightforward. Although, Raheem Sterling offered a spark on Saturday, but simply aren’t a good team right now. Struggling to score and always offering a chance for the opposition at the back, Liverpool’s season could suffer another heavy blow on Tuesday.
Liverpool 1-1 Basel
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 1