I do like a bold decision. So, when Brendan Rodgers decided that enough was enough after yet another appallingly lacklustre first half display and opted for the ‘let’s go mental’ option, I applauded heartily.
Moreno on for the (once again) woeful Enrique? Cool, having that although in fairness you could have pulled either full back at the halfway mark such was the pointlessness of their existence. Credit where credit’s due though, Johnson improved immeasurably in the second 45. It would be hard not to.
The ‘yet to convince’ Lazar Markovic for Rickie lambert? A £20m gamble of unproved potential to replace a 32 year old man playing his sixth game in two weeks who looked exactly like a 32 year old man playing his sixth game in two weeks? Go on then - bit of pace, bit of unpredictability. What have we got to lose that we don’t already look like losing? Our place in the Champions League? It’s on it’s way out of the window; we needed a win and we’re one nil down thanks to YET AGAIN standing off a team, sitting deep and inviting attacks that we can’t cope with.
It had started so well though. Apart from the obvious fact that Brendan doesn’t trust any of the players that he bought in the summer - Lallana, Can, Markovic on the bench, Lovren only playing because of an injury to the revitalised Kolo Toure - and very few of his previous purchases - Sakho benched, although returning from ‘injury’, Borini nowhere to be seen despite having NO OTHER STRIKERS - the old guard looked capable of the job. A midfield of Gerrard, Lucas, Henderson and Allen looked set for possession and control with Sterling running at Basle’s defence.
And Sterling ran at them, he ran, he weaved, he bobbed, he ducked, he caused absolute chaos in the Swiss rearguard. For ten minutes. And then we stopped and allowed them to run the game in exactly the same way that we have every team we’ve faced in every first half this season. When the away team’s goal came it was a long way from being a surprise.
So the changes were needed. And the changes worked. Moreno, for all his obvious defensive frailties, doesn’t petrify the crowd anywhere near as much as Enrique’s blatant insanity. Markovic? Markovic was suddenly the player that we’d been promised. Fast, direct, tricky, fleet footed; everything that he did dragged the whole team forward. Constantly inventive, constantly creative, constantly inventive.
For fifteen minutes. Then we got the wrong kind of madness. Markovic is moving across the field. Safari (great name lad, thank your parents for that one) is picking at him, pulling, tussling. Enough to annoy but not enough to be booked. So Markovic breaks free and - for a reason known only to him - flicks a hand back at the Swiss player. This hand breezes across Safari’s face and the breeze destroys him; throws him to the ground, rolls him over a few times, leaves him fearing for his life. It’s the greatest feigning of injury in history. It’s one of the softest red cards I’ve ever seen. At the match, from the Main Stand, the view is that Lazar was nowhere near him. From the angle of TV replays the stance changes to ‘why d’yer do that soft lad?’.
Luckily the drop to ten men sees the team grow a pair of bollocks for the first time this season. We’re not having this, we’re not going out like this. We start to press. Not effectively but we start to press anyway. Henderson starts to look like Henderson again. Allen splits opinion but for me he’s a fine little player who makes the team tick and does exactly that all night. Sterling starts running again.
It’s Sterling’s running that gives us the Gerrard free kick. The sumptuous, perfect, trademark Gerrard free kick. And suddenly it’s game on. The last ten minutes are wonderful, they’re a reminder of the urgent, passionate, dynamic game that those lads on the pitch are still capable of even without Suarez. Imagine that with Sturridge upfront? We’d be okay, there’d be hope.
By the end, we have Skrtel playing as some kind of forward, possibly a number 9, possibly a number 10 but giving more mobility than Lambert had given in the first half. We have NO holding midfielders, Lucas having given way to Coutinho and our defence consists of Lovren and Johnson. We’re playing some kind of mad 2-7 formation and it’s exhilarating.
Exhilarating and not enough. We’re a goalie getting to Henderson’s fine shot, a Sterling shooting with conviction away from hitting the last 16. Close but not quite.
And we wouldn’t have deserved it. Not because of that last ten minutes of pressing and pushing, not because of the balls that we finally showed when it was too late but because we left it too late before we did it. We wouldn’t have deserved a place in the last 16, in Europe’s best 16 teams, because for five and a half games of a six game league (the B-team’s showing at Madrid notwithstanding) we were poor and bordering on - sometimes surpassing - pathetic. Six games, five points, goal difference of minus three. Not good enough.
So it’s Thursdays and Sundays in the New Year. Thursdays and Sundays and the nightmare scenario: Liverpool vs Everton in the Europa final in Moscow. That’s a hell of a journey home for the losers.