Brendan Rodgers gives up on top four as Arsenal expose Reds' flaws
Arsenal 4 Liverpool 1
When he looked forward to yesterday's game with Arsenal at the Emirates, Brendan Rodgers said others might see it as a "must-win" but he believed it was a "must-perform".
After 45 minutes yesterday, Liverpool were three goals down and were left, in Rodgers' words, "playing for pride". They hadn't performed and they hadn't won and their season now depends on the FA Cup, even if, for a club like Liverpool, so much more depends on being in the top four.
"I very much doubt we will be in the top four come the end of the season, there's too much ground to make up," Rodgers said afterwards.
Yesterday's display was in keeping with Liverpool's autumn months when they surrendered their place in the Champions League and gave themselves too much to do to return to the competition.
The half-time scoreline yesterday was a fair reflection of the first 10 minutes of the game when Liverpool were a mess but the goals hadn't come until the last 10 minutes.
By that stage, Liverpool appeared to have re-established themselves in a match which didn't so much have a run of play as an order of chaos.
Then Hector Bellerin gave Arsenal the lead in what Rodgers called a "crazy period" and the home side didn't look back. Mesut Ozil was outstanding, spreading the play beautifully for the first goal, drilling in the second from a free-kick and, at all times, demonstrating his ability to drift into time and space but now with added effectiveness.
"What he does is always classy and intelligent," Arsene Wenger said of a player who was at the heart of all that was good from his team.
Arsenal played with a killer instinct which they have often lacked. Liverpool's defending and goalkeeping was poor, especially for the third goal, but there was a ruthlessness in Alexis Sanchez's finish which summed up their performance.
Now Arsenal find themselves making an improbable title challenge, although Wenger acknowledged that, if his side were to win the league, they would need to be "perfect" and Chelsea would have to be less than perfect.
At the moment, Arsenal can claim to be keeping their side of the deal. They have won their last seven in the Premier League and Chelsea must visit the Emirates in three weeks.
Two weeks ago, Liverpool believed many things were possible. They were on a 12-game unbeaten run and were aiming high. Rodgers said at that stage that finishing second was possible. Unfortunately, they have whatever the opposite of a killer instinct is. They are now in a race to finish fifth and they could be sixth by the end of the weekend.
This was another critical game that Liverpool lost under their manager and if Rodgers received a lot of deserved praise - including some from himself - for Liverpool's run since they lost at Crystal Palace, this was a performance more in keeping with their form in the autumn.
Rodgers highlighted his side's inability to defend as the cause of this defeat and that had echoes of the time before the loss at Palace when Rodgers' 'intervention' changed things.
They have been altered again by the defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal. They will be without Emre Can - sent off after picking up two yellows yesterday - as well as Martin Skrtel and Steven Gerrard for the game at Blackburn but Rodgers seemed to be looking beyond that.
In between answering questions about Raheem Sterling and revealing that Mario Balotelli had declared himself unfit for yesterday's game, Rodgers was already looking forward and expressed the hope that Liverpool would make "a real bright start" next season.
It was all the hope that remained. Rodgers was downbeat afterwards. He talked about Liverpool's improved performance in the second half but admitted it's "easier to play" when a side is three goals down.
Supporters from both sides had staged a protest about ticket prices beforehand and some skipped the first 10 minutes of the game. Liverpool appeared to do the same in solidarity.
Wenger was pleased with the "great intensity" Arsenal showed in the opening minutes as they denied Liverpool's back three space and Kolo Toure imploded at the centre of the defence.
Somehow Arsenal didn't score and Liverpool quickly discovered that they weren't the only side with a wayward backline. If Lazar Markovic had shot instead of passing to Sterling, the game might have been different but he didn't and it wasn't.
Sterling was Liverpool's best player according to Rodgers which was a reasonable view, although more people seem inclined to believe he represents all that's wrong with modern football right now.
Rodgers was placing the blame elsewhere. "A big part of this is nothing to do with him, this is a kid who is really focused on his football," he said as the conversation again turned to the subject of agents.
Sterling demonstrated his focus yesterday as he ran at Arsenal whenever he could but there wasn't the fluency in attack that Liverpool have shown on occasion.
Bellerin brought Sterling down and Jordan Henderson scored the penalty which gave Liverpool a goal in the second half but there was no fight back and very little sign they believed in one.
Instead Can was sent off and Giroud scored arguably the best of the day's goals in the final minutes.
Rodgers spent a good deal of time at the post-match press conference answering questions about Sterling. He talked about the Liverpool model and how the club was the best place for the player to develop in a football and financial sense.
"At 17 years of age, I deemed him worthy enough to come in and be a regular. The opportunity to play is critical for a young player like him."
Sterling wouldn't be leaving at the end of the season, he repeated. "We'll sit down again with his representatives to hopefully find a solution in the summer." Sterling might want too much money but Liverpool will no longer be able to offer Champions League football as part of the solution.
Players would be happy once the club showed ambition, Rodgers insisted.
Liverpool had ambitious plans last summer which included the Champions League but now Rodgers sees the season as a period in which there had been a "lot of learning". Liverpool can't afford to do any more learning next time.
Sunday Indo Sport