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Analysis: Problems mount for Liverpool ahead of crucial Champions League clash

Brendan Rodgers’ side are in serious danger of being knocked out of the tournament by early November.

Image: Nick Potts/PA Wire/Press Association Images

WITH THREE POINTS from their first two games and back-to-back assignments to come against the reigning European champions, it’s fair to claim that Liverpool’s hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League rest predominantly on how they do over the next fortnight.

And going on current form, it’s wildly optimistic to think Brendan Rodgers’ side can get anything from their upcoming games against Real Madrid.

At Loftus Road on Saturday, Liverpool managed to pick up an undeserved three points – QPR’s naivety costing them dearly. At the back, the Merseysiders were pulled apart by Bobby Zamora – the veteran attacker – who proved a constant headache for the central defensive pairing of Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren. For two imposing stoppers, they allowed Zamora ample opportunity to take control of the ball in a variety of dangerous areas, get turned and bring others into the game.

At one stage, Lovren completely switched off as a ball seemed likely to go out for a throw. Instead, QPR rescued it and looked to counter. Zamora was on his toes and instantly sprinted into the right channel. Lovren was caught, far too casual in reading the situation and badly out of position.

ZamoraFinal

Zamora eventually pulled the ball back to the in-rushing Leroy Fer, who really should’ve scored. Instead, the ball cracked off the top of the crossbar. Real Madrid certainly won’t be so wasteful when opportunities fall their way.

FerMiss

Before the Fer chance, Charlie Austin went close to opening the scoring after somehow bulldozing his way through a couple of tackles. As the ball bounced between him and Skrtel, this was the defender’s attempt to make a challenge:

Skrtel

Not for the first time this season, Liverpool had an incredibly soft centre. There was a nervousness to the team’s defensive unit and everytime QPR went forward, they seemed to create something. The much-maligned Simon Mignolet came for a Zamora cross in the first-half, got nowhere near it and Fer’s header came back off the woodwork. On the follow-up, Johnson was lucky to avoid any punishment for a high lunge on the Dutchman and Austin. Skrtel scrambled it clear.

Against West Brom, there was something similar when Saido Berahino had a couple of chances prior to Liverpool taking the lead. Despite his age, his relative inexperience and the hosts’ imposing central defenders, he caused a series of problems – an early run and shot that Mignolet dealt with and then a gilt-edged header from close-range after Lovren was caught under a cross. The directness of the opponent, mixed with individual error, ensured another worrying defensive display.

What Liverpool did offer against West Brom is something they’ve lacked since the season started: creativity. Adam Lallana popped up with a moment of genuine inspiration to break the deadlock – the trick, the turn, the purpose, the finish – the reasons why he was brought to the club to begin with. In many ways, Luis Suarez provided this with astonishing regularity during his time at Anfield – the sense of individual magic has been sorely missed since he’s gone. The arrivals of Balotelli, Lallana and Markovic were supposed to bring about a certain degree of flair though there have been plenty of teething problems and Liverpool’s problems in the final third have been well documented.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Queens Park Rangers v Liverpool - Loftus Road Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

One can’t underestimate the frustration Rodgers must be feeling owing to Daniel Sturridge’s injury setback. An intelligent coach, he’ll recognise the desperate need for a proven attacking threat, a figure that can unsettle defences just by being there. Balotelli was a wildcard and you can certainly appreciate the thinking behind the signing.

Firstly, the Italian was incredibly cheap and is a penalty-area nuisance. He has a number of impressive attributes and when he’s on form, he causes problems. But he’s struggling under the weight of expectation and with a lack of support. Also, like any new striker, there’s a lack of chemistry with team-mates and against QPR, there was plenty of posturing and finger-pointing regarding where he wanted a pass to be played.

There was that miss too and encouraging signs were few and far between (except for a superbly-weighted pass for Steven Gerrard, the midfielder cutting inside and narrowly missing the far corner).

The most positive element to Balotelli’s form right now is that he’s not shirking responsibility. He’s still peppering the goal with shots – it’s just that he’s not scored one yet (in the league anyway). It means that ex-Manchester City striker now has the most shots of any goalless player in Europe’s top 5 leagues. An immensely unflattering tag.

MarioStats Source: WhoScored.com

As a team, Liverpool are doing something similar to Balotelli. Despite struggling in key attacking areas, they’re still trying to push through. Per game, they’re second in the league for average shots on goal, while they’re fourth in terms of getting those shots on target.

LiverpoolShotsFinal

The counter-argument is pretty easy: quality not quantity but when a side is struggling to score generally, it comes down to a numbers game. From open play, Liverpool have scored just six times (they’ve added a further two on the counter attack) in the league. The teams around them in that particular statistical table include Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Stoke. It makes for grim reading.

So, there are reasons to be optimistic but unless Mario Balotelli suddenly springs to life tonight and the silly defensive errors have all been ironed out, it’s a massive challenge for Liverpool. What makes things worse is that by the time Sturridge is fit and ready to return, the team could very well be out of the Champions League. Successive defeats to Real and Liverpool will sit on three points from four games and may require snookers. It’s all very premature at this stage but that early defeat to Basel could prove very costly.

But Rodgers’ eyes are very much open to all of this. The loss of Suarez was always going to prove insurmountable while the injury to Sturridge was incredibly inconvenient. They must power through and get to the other side. But it could be an arduous and painful journey.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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