Rodgers' safety-first approach backfires
LUDOGORETS RAZGRAD 2
(Dani Abalo 3, Georgi Terziev 88)
(Rickie Lambert 8, Jordan Henderson 37)
When push came to shove, Brendan Rodgers gave in to man's primal enemy: Fear.
His players did the hard work of clawing back from an early deficit to surge 2-1 ahead against Bulgarian club Ludogorets Razgrad.
Rodgers took the easy way out by trying to defend a slender lead which they didn't seem to be capable of holding on to.
The 2-2 away draw yesterday morning (Singapore time) was exactly what Liverpool deserved.
Once Ludogorets threw down the gauntlet, the manager got cold feet.
The Reds seized the initiative, then handed it back to the hosts on a silver platter.
An attitude like this won't get this team very far.
The Merseyside outfit can still secure a place in the Champions League last 16 with a home win over Basel in their final group fixture in about two weeks' time.
But, on the evidence of this season's performances, that will only prolong the pain.
Liverpool admirably overcame a torrid start at the Vasil Levski Stadium - played there as the hosts' own Ludogorets Arena does not meet Uefa's requirements.
By the third minute, they were down by a goal. Under-fire goalkeeper Simon Mignolet spilled a straightforward long-range effort by Marcelinho and Dani Abalo converted the loose ball to put his team in front.
But, eight minutes before half-time, the Reds were 2-1 ahead, courtesy of a Rickie Lambert equaliser and a Jordan Henderson strike.
The momentum, at that point, was all Liverpool's.
Then they retreated into their shell.
Ludogorets coach Georgi Dermendzhiev started to play his cards, one by one, as if taunting his counterpart to respond.
CHASE THE GAME
His intent was clear. From the 69th minute to the 81st, he utilised all three substitutions by throwing in two forwards and one midfielder to chase the game.
In the meantime, Ludogorets started to look increasingly menacing.
As Liverpool's defence felt the rope coil around their neck, they lost all composure and their shape. The mistakes began to mount.
Especially given their weakness at defending set-pieces, it seemed inevitable that the equaliser would come.
Liverpool needed intervention.
Yet, from Rodgers, all they got was hesitation.
His only response was to bring in Alberto Moreno for Raheem Sterling in the 82nd minute, after the opponents had used up all their substitutes.
Here's the bewildering part.
Moreno, primarily a fullback, took up Sterling's attacking position on the pitch, with Glen Johnson keeping his left-back role.
But that was only one of the many questions Liverpool's performance produced than answered.
Why didn't Rodgers, who showed such tactical flexibility when his side challenged for the Premiership crown last season, do more to try to turn the tide in the second half?
If last term's failure to land the league title was down to a lack of depth in his squad, he has no such problems now.
What he didn't have, was a defence good enough to hold on to the lead.
Taking the game to Ludogorets was his best bet. And he had plenty of attacking options on the bench.
But he chose not to utilise his two remaining substitutions.
So, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho, Fabio Borini and Emre Can were made to witness the horror show from the dugout.
After Georgi Terziev nodded in at the far post - off a textbook corner-kick move - to make it 2-2 in the 88th minute, Liverpool's defensive failings were, for the umpteenth time this season, repeated over and over in slow-motion.
The irony was that Rodgers had the resources, and perhaps even the know-how, to prevent that from happening.
But, chances are, he was simply too overcome by fear.
- Basel 0 Real Madrid 1
* Qualified for the Round of 16