Belfast Telegraph

Brendan Rodgers facing his biggest test yet at Anfield

By Steven Beacom

May 11, 2014. As the Liverpool players and manager walked around Anfield following their final match of the season they did so with disappointment. The fans in the stands felt it too... so near yet so far to becoming league champions for the first time since 1990.

Yet there was also a feeling of pride in an uplifting campaign when the most dynamic and daring football was delivered by a Liverpool side for over 25 years when back then winning titles was routine.

Hope was in hearts that the Reds were a force again and as the name of Brendan Rodgers echoed around the Kop it was evident who the supporters felt had provided it. The Ulsterman was the answer. Today, just seven months on those same fans are now questioning his tactics, selections and signings.

Liverpool are ninth in the Premier League and out of the Champions League in what, so far, has been a miserable season.

Returning to Europe's premier competition was a big deal. It was like rekindling a beautiful romance. They may have been apart for five years, but meeting up again would be just like old times and nights out would be filled with excitement. More like embarrassment! Liverpool looked uncomfortable to be in Champions League company once more.

They deserved to exit on Tuesday night at Anfield, having won once in six group games when minnows Ludogorets, in the opening fixture, conceded a crazy late penalty allowing ice cool captain Steven Gerrard to decide the outcome. Losing twice to holders Real Madrid was no surprise, even if Liverpool's starting line up in the Bernabeu caused a stir, but to only take five points out of 12 from the other games was dreadful.

The end came when, needing a win at home to Basel, they drew 1-1 with Gerrard scoring a stunning equaliser to set up a frantic, but fruitless, last 10 minutes.

Another bloke at Liverpool may copyright it, but if ever anyone had a right to say 'Why is it always me?' it's the outstanding Liverpool skipper.

Even Stevie G, though, couldn't do it on his own this time in an underperforming side which left two of its most creative talents on the bench when goals were required. Incredibly Adam Lallana didn't see any action at all and Philippe Coutinho only got 16 minutes. Ineffective Joe Allen somehow stayed on the pitch for 90.

Last season Liverpool's fast starts destroyed opponents. On Tuesday with Lucas and Allen in withdrawn midfield roles Basel were handed the initiative and gleefully accepted it, scoring early. With Rickie Lambert off at half-time and his replacement Lazar Markovic, sent off 15 minutes later, Liverpool finished the game with Martin Skrtel up front, looking stronger than he has in a defence that has been shambolic for most of this season.

Mario Balotelli, proving as troublesome as ever, and Daniel Sturridge were injured and Fabio Borini nowhere to be seen. Presumably Borini's leaving in January to put money in the bank, which Rodgers will want to spend on a striker and goalkeeper to challenge the nerve shredding Simon Mignolet.

Given the summer spree of over £100 million, most of which came from Luis Suarez's Barcelona move, has brought precious little return to date, the American owners Fenway Sports Group will carefully consider handing further funds to the failing transfer committee.

Rodgers has been frustrated at being unable to recruit certain players he wanted, but ultimately with poor signings it's the boss, not others involved, who tends to carry the can. Liverpool have been here before. Under Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez they were second in title races, only to mess up transfer business designed to go the extra mile. They never recovered.

Rodgers isn't at that stage yet and for all the woe, there's much to play for in the second half of the season, when his teams traditionally come on strong. They'll go for Champions League qualification, through a top four Premier League place or by winning the Europa League, plus the League Cup and FA Cup are up for grabs, though with serious problems to solve. The departure of Suarez and injury to Sturridge were big blows, but should not have led to the current howling tornado. Brendan must find solutions in the biggest test of his career. He needs to get Liverpool going in the right direction again - a positive result at Manchester United on Sunday would be a start.

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