This game never ceases to amaze me. Less than two weeks ago I sat in the pub feeling like I’d just been kicked in the gut. Liverpool drew at home to Hull City 0-0 in a match that was as exciting as picking out what style of floor tile to get installed in the kitchen. Then it took some late heroics to advance in the League Cup against 10-man Swansea, but that celebration quickly evaporated when the Reds were played off the pitch in a 1-0 defeat to Newcastle at St. James Park. Recent form was on the decline, and the toughest part of the schedule was knocking on the door.
But then we go to Madrid to face what I believe is the best team on the planet. Instead of fielding our best XI, Rodgers made the curious decision to rest Gerrard, Sterling, Lovren, Henderson, and Balotelli. Much has been said about whether or not it was the correct decision. Even UEFA president Michel Platini recently intimated that Brendan Rodgers should explain this team selection to the fans (while adding that it is “not his place to interfere.”) I would argue that none of those players had shown enough recent form to justify keeping their starting spot to begin with. Many say it was a capitulation in an effort to save bodies for the upcoming winter stretch, while others said that we had nothing else to lose. After all, who really goes into the Bernabeu and expects a result? Liverpool should, and our fans should demand they at least try. It’s a moot point now, and we look ahead to the future.
Immediately after we lost to Basel back in September I made the comment that Liverpool still had a good chance to advance as long as they won their last two matches. That hasn’t changed. Here are the current standings:
There are still six more points to be had for Liverpool. That would bring them to 9 total points in the group. But will that be enough? One of those two victories would be against Basel, meaning the most that the Swiss champs could do is get three points from their next match and get to nine. Sounds easy enough, but that match is against Real Madrid. Even a draw only brings them to seven, which Liverpool will surpass with two victories of their own. Anything less than a victory at home for Basel against Real Madrid will give Liverpool control of their own destiny.
Skeptics have come out and said that the Spanish giants will take their foot off the pedal now that they have already qualified for the next round. I have two points to remind those skeptics: (1) While Real Madrid has indeed clinched advancement, they HAVEN’T yet won the group. They will want to avoid getting put in the second place pot for the knockout stage draw. (2) The second-best XI in Group B very well may be Real Madrid reserves. When you’ve got guys like Gareth Bale coming off your bench, it’s safe to say that they will be fielding a squad on paper stronger than Basel. Their squad is deep, and the non-regulars will be hungry to show Carlo Ancelotti what they can do. For Basel to defeat Real Madrid will not be easy.
For argument’s sake let’s say that Basel pull off the miraculous feat of defeating Real Madrid. After all we are only three years removed from their monumental 2-1 home victory to knock Manchester United out of the Champions League. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility. That would bring Basel to nine points in the group after five matches. A Red victory in Bulgaria means that they will be sitting on six points overall. A Liverpool victory over Basel on December 5th would then draw the two clubs level in 2nd place with nine points each at the conclusion of the group stage. We then head to the tiebreakers to see who advances to the lucrative knockout stage and who gets relegated to the Europa League. Surely Basel’s 4-0 victory over Ludogorets yesterday gives them a leg up in the tiebreakers, one would think. Not so, it turns out. I checked the UEFA rulebook to see how the tiebreakers shake out:
- higher number of points obtained in the group matches played among the teams in question;
- superiorgoal difference from the group matches played among the teams in question;
- higher number of goals scored in the group matches played among the teams in question;
- higher number ofgoals scored away from home in the group matches played among the teams in question;
- If, after applying criteria 1 to 4 to several teams, two teams still have an equal ranking, criteria 1 to 4 are reapplied exclusively to the matches between the two teams in question to determine their final rankings. If this procedure does not lead to a decision, criteria 6 to 8 apply;
- superior goal difference from all group matches played;
- higher number of goals scored from all group matches played;
- higher number ofcoefficient points accumulated by the club in question, as well as its association, over the previous five seasons.
The first tiebreaker is simple: head-to-head competition. In this scenario, Basel defeated Liverpool 1-0 at home already, but we know that Liverpool will have needed to beat them at Anfield to get to this point. We move on to the second tiebreaker: “superior goal difference from the group matches played among the teams in question.” Let me put this another way: It’s not total goal differential throughout ALL of group, just the games involving Basel against Liverpool. Theoretically Basel could defeat Real Madrid 7-0 and that result wouldn’t affect this tiebreaker. All that would be required for the Reds would be a two-goal victory over Basel and it would send them through. Sound familiar? Think 10 years ago against Olympiacos. Let’s take it one-step further and say that Liverpool only win by one goal and we move to the third tiebreaker. Higher number of goals scored in the group matches played among the teams in question. Liverpool wins 2-1? They are through and Basel returns to the Europa League. But if Liverpool can only win 1-0 then we need to go to the 6th tiebreaker: “superior goal difference from all group matches played.” It then becomes more complicated and would require an advanced degree in mathematics to figure it out (a degree that I happen to possess ironically enough).
These tiebreakers are only an issue on the assumption that Basel defeats Madrid. More realistically is the likely scenario of the opposite, at which moment a Liverpool victory in Bulgaria draws them level with the Swiss champs at six points in the group headed into that final match. Can Liverpool then advance with only a draw at home against Basel? No they cannot. The first tiebreaker is points against each other in competition. Liverpool will only have earned a point against Basel while they will have earned four. Thus defeating Basel at home on December 5 is now a requirement for advancement to the knockout stage.
I’ve given you a lot to think about, but here’s one final simple thought to leave with you. All of these scenarios and permutations I’ve provided are moot points if Liverpool can’t figure out a way to put the damn ball in the back of the net. A team that scored over 100 goals in the last Premiership are currently on target to net around 49-50 goals in this current campaign. That is simply unacceptable and has to improve. The good news is that Daniel Sturridge will return to the lineup soon, hopefully be fit enough to start in Bulgaria on November 26th. But will it be enough? I’ve watched this game long enough to know that confidence, specifically lack thereof, is like a virus. Eventually the virus will go away, but when? And will it be too late?
As strange as it is for to say this, it’s not as bad as you think. I started this blog by stating this game never ceases to amaze me. Two weeks ago I was cursing the TV after we stretched our undefeated streak to four whole games with a 0-0 home draw to Hull. Yesterday I was smiling at the pub with my mates applauding the efforts in a 1-0 loss! But look where we are now. We’ve advanced to the League Cup quarterfinals and are a road victory against a team in the tier below us from making the final four of that competition. We still control our destiny to advance out of the Champions League group stage. And we are only three points out of the top 4 in the Premiership. We are still very much alive in every competition we’ve entered this season! Imagine what these guys can do if they ever figure out how to play to their potential on the pitch!!
Only one more match before the next international break and it’s a big one. We have an important home fixture against league frontrunner Chel$ki on Saturday at 7:45 AM EST. Three points against the Blues would go a long way towards getting back to the top 4 and more importantly getting some confidence back. So get to the pub and support the lads! Up the Reds!!