Liverpool surrender shows Champions League close to expiration date

COLUMN: The side who finished second in the Premier League demonstrated that they have no intention of trying to hang with Real Madrid and are content to go with the flow of money

By Peter Staunton

Brendan Rodgers has been criticised this week for his decision to rest several first-team players for Liverpool’s match away to Real Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday night.

He has attempted to explain away his selections by stating that his first-choice team played badly and lost at Newcastle a few days before and that he needed to give himself options before the crucial weekend Premier League game against Chelsea.

He says there is no guarantee that a team containing Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho and Mario Balotelli would have fared any better than their replacements against Real Madrid. That might be true considering those five played, and lost, against Newcastle.

“There is no way that by changing the team I was undermining the competition or the size of the task that we had and I am not sending out a Liverpool team to lose convincingly or just accepting defeat,” Rodgers told the press on Thursday.

“Maybe last year’s team might have gone and played differently but this is the present, we are where we are, and I had to find a way to give us an opportunity to get something from the game. It wasn’t to be as we didn’t get the result.”

However, it is just as logical to say that a team with Kolo Toure, Lucas, Emre Can, Joe Allen, and Fabio Borini might have fared better at St James’ Park considering the decent shift they all put in at Santiago Bernabeu. Had Rodgers, then, rested his key men one match earlier, he might well have been able to play them twice in a row against Real and then Chelsea on Saturday in the league.

It is, though, undeniable that Rodgers folded with his team selection. That XI, in a million years, had no chance of beating Real Madrid. That they were defeated only 1-0 is not to their credit either considering that Real spent 90 solid minutes in and around the Liverpool box. It was a game which finished 1-0 but felt like five or six.

Rodgers, then, wasted everybody’s time. He wasted the time of the Liverpool supporters who made the trip to Madrid hoping that their side would compete and at least try to gain an advantage on Basel. He wasted the time of those players he rested by making them travel with the rest of the squad. The whole affair was a washout, an anti-climax.

Liverpool may well yet qualify for the knockouts of this competition but they must defeat Basel in their last game to stand any chance. First they need to come through Ludogorets unscatched. Considering the Bulgarian champions have beaten Basel in Sofia and given Real Madrid their hardest game so far, that will be no easy feat for a Liverpool side who are not exactly pulling up any trees on the domestic front or in Europe.

Liverpool’s fans have been patient. They have waited five years for a return to a competition they dominated for a spell in the late 1970s and 1980s. This is a club which has won the tournament five times; the latest as recently as 2005. They are European royalty along with Real themselves, AC Milan and Bayern Munich.

But Liverpool’s team selection against Real this week was small time. There was no willingness to go toe to toe with a fellow Euro aristocrat. Like a minnow team, they accepted the beating before it was even dished out. That is a betrayal of their heritage, first and foremost, but it is also an indictment of what Uefa has let this competition become.

Big teams are entitled to rest players for dead rubbers, and the Champions League sees plenty of that, but the underdog should really have a go. This is a point not specifically about Liverpool as such; it is more representative of the mindset demonstrated by them; that they don’t have a hope in hell of winning the Champions League but are happy to be here.

There is Real Madrid and there is Bayern Munich and then the rest. Once Chelsea are up and running, properly, they will join those two at the top table while Barcelona, even in a transitional season, are entitled to be mentioned in the same breath.

The efforts of Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid in recent years to defy their fate have been commendable but what is their ultimate reward? Having their top quality players picked off by the new super elite and paid more money.

But if a team is not in a tournament to win it then what is the point? Well, based on last year’s financial distribution figures, Liverpool stand to earn in excess of €30 million for their Champions League campaign even if they go out in the group stages. Not bad for six matches’ work.

Uefa has created a two-tier system. Only a select band of clubs know they are in with a chance of winning the Champions League. The rest are content to swim along with the tide and keep the money rolling in. The Champions League now has a credibility crisis and there is no way Uefa can deny that.

The group stage is bloated; generally pointless. It is a procession. We already know the identity of six of the 16 teams who will qualify for the knockout stages with 32 full games left to play. The competition will only really start in the second legs of the quarter-finals when there is actually some consequence to the result.

Where is the deterrent against losing matches at this stage? In the World Cup, for example, if a team loses even one of the three group stage matches they are on shaky ground. In the Champions League by contrast, Arsenal, who have won only two matches of four, were booed off after letting slip a three-goal lead at home to Anderlecht.

They still only need one point from their two remaining matches to qualify and meet expectations. Abject displays like that should have consequences. The money allows teams like Liverpool and Arsenal to break away from their domestic rivals without even attempting to keep up and compete with the standard on the continental stage.

When even Liverpool, storied Liverpool, are giving up then it is apparent that the Champions League in its current format is close to its expiration date.

Then what? The super elite, if they decide to remain allied to Uefa, will still want a tournament that guarantees them plenty of not-too-difficult matches, plenty of television exposure and plenty of revenue. The rest will be along for the ride. If that sounds painfully close to what we already have then consider the alternative. The European Super League, in which Real Madrid won’t have to waste their time playing hopelessly inadequate teams like Liverpool, will move a step closer.

In the meantime Liverpool play Chelsea in the Premier League – a match they prioritised in order to bolster their chances of requalifying for the Champions League. And then? Well, they’ll rest players against the teams who can actually win it.

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