Having worked so hard and defied expectations so spectacularly to earn a return to the Champions League last season. Liverpool risk their achievements unravelling in equally stunning manner. Last season’s Premier League runners up sit a lowly 12th in the table after a sixth defeat from 12 games against Crystal Palace on Sunday. Their participation in the Champions League next season has already been put in serious jeopardy. And on Wednesday they face a fight to preserve their place in this season’s competition.
Liverpool sit in third place in Group B, level on three points with their next opponents Ludogorets, and three points behind second place Basel, who host leaders Real Madrid. Only a win for the Merseysiders in Bulgaria will ensure that they go into their final group match at home to Basel still with a chance of progress to the last 16.
Anything else will be yet another huge blow in a season that has so far been overflowing with them. Already deprived of the services of talisman Luis Suarez following his exit to Barcelona, the Uruguayan’s partner in terrorizing opposition defenses last season, Daniel Sturridge, has not featured for the club since August after suffering a frustrating series of muscle injuries. In their absence, the raft of signings who arrived over the summer have failed to step adequately into the void. Chiefly, Mario Balotelli has scored just twice, and is expected to again miss out against Ludogorets due to injury, while Rickie Lambert only got his first goal for the club against Palace.
The former Southampton man’s strike opened the scoring at Selhurst Park to briefly raise hopes, before Liverpool collapsed all too familiarly. A defense, led by big summer arrival Dejan Lovren, again looked incredibly ill at ease as Palace scored two late goals. It means Liverpool have conceded 27 goals in 18 matches this season and has left manager Brendan Rodgers demanding more.
“We need to be more tenacious, more aggressive and have a greater capacity to defend better as a team,” he told Liverpool’s official website. “When there are moments to defend, you have to defend better -- and that's something that we'll look to do.”
Rodgers, himself, has come under serious criticism as the team’s results and performances have continued to disappoint. Liverpool’s only points so far in the Champions League came against Ludogorets on Matchday One back in September, but even then there were plenty of signs of the troubles that have blighted the club’s season. The minnows, playing their first ever match in the Champions League group phase, held Liverpool at bay with a degree of comfort at Anfield for more than 80 minutes. Even after going ahead, Rodgers’ men conceded a sloppy equalizer, before a late, late penalty by captain Steven Gerrard rescued a most unconvincing the win.
Three defeats have since followed, against Basel and twice to Real Madrid. Ludogorets, meanwhile, have already exceeded expectations, having followed up a narrow and cruel defeat to Real Madrid with a victory at home to Basel. A heavy loss in Switzerland last time out was perhaps something of a reality check, but they retain a chance to at least continue their participation in continental competition into the new year, via the Europa League.
Prediction: There is so much wrong with Liverpool that there is no easy fix to simply transform the team’s fortunes overnight. The defense shows a staggering indecisiveness that means they are always vulnerable to conceding, while going forward there is no rhythm and, with the occasional exception of Raheem Sterling, no player appearing capable of producing a piece of individual magic. Ludogorets are only second in the Bulgarian league, yet it is difficult to see Liverpool, even boosted by the probable return of Jordan Henderson, picking up a victory. Ludogorets have impressed so far in the Champions League, showing no fear and adapting impressively to the elevated level. They could secure another credible result on Wednesday to leave Liverpool potentially staring at elimination.
Ludogorets 1-1 Liverpool
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 2