For Liverpool, there is little chance to recover from Saturday’s chastening defeat at Arsenal, with Wednesday’s FA Cup quarterfinal replay against Blackburn Rovers representing a vital chance to keep their season afloat. Liverpool’s 4-1 loss at Arsenal left the Merseysiders seven points off a place in the top four -- it will become eight if Manchester City win on Monday evening -- and with manager Brendan Rodgers conceding that it will now be “very difficult” for them to gain a place in the Champions League.
The failure to achieve the club’s primary objective at the start of the season would be a significant blow, but it will undoubtedly be mitigated if the campaign ends with a first trophy of the Rodgers era. That the FA Cup final will take place on Steven Gerrard’s 35th birthday and be the legendary Liverpool captain’s final game for the club will only add to the determination to get past Blackburn and then a semifinal against Aston Villa at Wembley Stadium.
To do so, Liverpool will have to reverse a dramatic decline in form. After a dismal start to the campaign, Liverpool had turned their season around at the turn of the year, going on a run of just two defeats in 23 matches in all competitions. But it was against Blackburn in the first match at Anfield that the first signs of trouble emerged. Liverpool failed to break their Championship opponents down over 90 minutes, and in the following match they required a fortunate goal to beat a Swansea City side that had been superior for much of the contest.
The 3-4-2-1 formation that had proved so instrumental in their revival when switching to it last December was no longer fueling free-flowing performances. Instead, it appeared that opposition coaches had discovered a way to counter its key component: facilitating high-tempo passing through the center of midfield. That was even more emphatically emphasized against Manchester United and Arsenal, when their pressing in the midfield stifled Rodgers’ side and exposed a defense that again looks wholly unconvincing. Rodgers, though, disputes the idea that his formation has been found wanting.
“I don’t think it’s about being worked out,” he said, reports the Liverpool Echo. “We didn’t start well [against Arsenal], and it doesn’t matter what system you are playing if that happens. The last two games we’ve played, or the last four really, we haven’t created much, and that is on ourselves. Of course you can give the opposition credit, for pressing and defending well, but we haven’t created as much, and that is something we want to reinforce.
“It’s a difficult system to play against, but it’s one of a number of systems we’ve played here and played very well. It’s my job to always look to find solutions. That’s what I’ve tried to do in the games where we haven’t played well and haven’t looked like scoring. It’s about finding a way to win.”
It has been more than the formation put into question following Saturday’s costly defeat. According to one tabloid report, Rodgers faced a “dressing room crisis” after accusing his squad of not playing for him. Rodgers, however, insisted far too much was being made out of what was simply a regular team meeting.
Whatever the truth of what transpired, Rodgers will have to devise a plan to beat Blackburn at Ewood Park without a trio of suspended players. Already missing Gerrard and Martin Skrtel for their stamps against Manchester United, Liverpool will know be without Emre Can, after the versatile German was sent off late on at the Emirates Stadium.
Blackburn, meanwhile, have been in mixed form since earning a reply at Anfield. While recording three wins, including a 3-0 away victory at Leeds United on Saturday, back-to-back home defeats before the international break effectively ended their outside hopes of making it into the Championship playoffs and attempting to earn a return to the Premier League. And they go into the rematch with Liverpool nursing an injury crisis that is threatening the participation of as many as 10 players. Perhaps most concerning to manager Gary Bowyer is a hamstring problem that forced off striker Rudy Gestede at the weekend.
Prediction: Liverpool urgently need to get back on track to prevent their season desperately petering out. On Saturday they looked particularly sluggish and Blackburn will fancy their chances of frustrating them once again as well as prospering on the break against a defense that will now be further weakened by Can’s absence. An upset is certainly a possibility, but Gestede’s possible absence could help Liverpool to have just enough to sneak through.
Predicted score: Liverpool over Blackburn, 2-1