Liverpool’s season was dealt another heavy blow as they crashed out of the Champions League at the first hurdle after a 1-1 draw with Basel at Anfield. Needing a victory over the Swiss champions to make the last 16, a performance in sharp contrast to what has been offered up by Brendan Rodgers’ men this campaign was needed. Instead for much of the contest, it was much of the same.
Basel, not content to merely sit back for a point, took a deserved lead through Fabian Frei’s 25th minute strike. Lazar Markovic’s sending off for a flailing arm toward the face of Basel’s Behrang Safari, just 16 minutes after his half-time introduction appeared to end all hope. In trademark fashion Steven Gerrard lifted the Kop with a brilliant free-kick with nine minutes remaining. But a desperate late charge was too little too late and Brendan Rodgers’s men will now have to make do with falling into the Europa League.
The controversial red for Markovic will doubtless be much discussed, as will the stirring dying minutes that so nearly saw Liverpool replicate their final Matchday victory against Olympiakos in similar circumstances a decade ago. But the truth was that Liverpool were once again simply not good enough. The problems are more deep-seated that simply a poor run of form. It spoke volumes that only two of Liverpool’s eight summer signings were in the starting lineup, and Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren were only there thanks to injuries to Daniel Sturridge and Kolo Toure.
New players or old, it was only Raheem Sterling who appeared capable of providing the spark Liverpool required. The occasion called for a display of verve and intensity to match the vocal encouragement of the Anfield crowd, instead the hosts were lackluster and hesitant. No more so was that evidenced than for Basel’s goal. Paulo Sousa’s side were allowed to maneuver the ball around their stationary opponents on the edge of the box before Frei took full advantage of the lack of pressure by hammering a superb shot into the corner of the net.
Marco Streller missed a chance to make it 2-0, giving Liverpool at least a chance to regroup at the break. Rodgers acted by bringing on Markovic for Lambert and Alberto Moreno for Jose Enrique, and there were some positive signs early in the second half. Markovic has done little since his arrival from Benfica but the young Serbian enlivened Liverpool after his arrival with some direct running and incisive passing. Yet just as soon as hope returned, it was extinguished. Trying to get away from Safari, Markovic took a glance back at his opponent before flinging back his arm in the direction of the defender’s face. The contact may have been at most a mere graze with his fingernails, but it was easy to understand why the referee had viewed the intent as deserving of a dismissal.
Liverpool now needed a miracle -- the kind of scenario that for so many years has seen them turn to their talismanic skipper. But now aged 34, it was beyond even him this time. Had Gerrard been in his prime, he may well have gotten to a through ball first rather than being beaten there by a superb intervention from Basel goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik. Still, he came up with some magic. A free-kick to the left of center was perfectly dispatched into the top corner of the net to set up a thrilling finale. Martin Skrtel, pushed forward, came close, while Jordan Henderson tested Vaclik once more, but the final whistle blew with Basel’s keeper clinging onto the ball in relief as time ran out on Liverpool’s return to the Champions League.