Sport Soccer

Saturday 17 March 2018

Football's hand of fate delivers final slap to Gerrard as Rodgers faces fight for job

A dejected Steven Gerrard at Wembley
A dejected Steven Gerrard at Wembley

Chris Bascombe

Steven Gerrard, dirtying his knees, crouched on the final whistle wondering how the opportunity to lift another trophy passed his side by.

It has become a familiar pose for the Liverpool captain in his twilight years at the club.

A year ago it symbolised the death of a dream, but after such a torrid afternoon at Wembley, this felt worse. This was more like the unravelling of a club vision.

Gerrard is now an afterthought in this season's competition, the cup final date shared with his birthday of zero consequence.

So poor were Liverpool, it seemed divine intervention to ensure he earned a victorious send-off was their only chance, but even the hands of fate delivered a slap in the captain's face when his 87th minute header was cleared off the line by Kieran Richardson.

Instead, the attention shifts higher to find some meaning in the Wembley wreckage.

Like Gerrard, Fenway Sports Group will feel they have been here before.

In the aftermath of the FA Cup Final defeat three years ago Kenny Dalglish was summoned to Boston to explain why, despite £100m investment in the team, Liverpool had failed to qualify for the Champions League and were comprehensively outplayed at Wembley by Chelsea.

His explanation did not convince, and two cup final appearances - one of which he won - did not save him.

Brendan Rodgers will be subject to similar interrogation, and you can't imagine his suggestion that two semi-final appearances is a sign of progress, will be particularly persuasive. They were well beaten by a team that could be in the Championship in a month's time.

"We were second-best. Aston Villa were better," said Rodgers in his opening post-match address.

"You can always lose a game but you'd hope you play well and give yourself an opportunity. We've come close now in two competitions but failed to make the steps, hopefully in the future we can learn from that.

"We need to have the courage to play better in those big games. Technically we did not perform."

The Liverpool manager gets full marks for honesty, but after losing a semi-final - for a club that only deals in the currency of silver - no-one returning to Merseyside will care about candid assessments.

For FSG, the traditional end-of-season review must now determine if this game and the whole year is a glitch or a more serious malfunction, Rodgers wondering if he will be held partially rather than wholly responsible.

There will be dividing lines drawn, many believing with some justification Rodgers has made the most of poor acquisitions for the last two summers, while others will argue he has more say in who is signed - or not signed - than has been documented.

What is undeniable is Rodgers can request plenty of others stand in the dock alongside him when the scapegoat-hunting reaches it inevitable conclusion.

The undoing of the campaign has been the lack of firepower and the misspending of the proceeds of Luis Suarez's sale.

In mid-season, a few encouraging performances by last summer's recruits were hailed as proof of astute purchases, but over the course of eight months only one - Emre Can - has looked a fit for Liverpool, and even he is still promising rather than the finished product.

The sight of Mario Balotelli failing to comprehend the offside laws (although one flag was errant), or Rickie Lambert having the whole of four minutes of injury-time to save Liverpool's season was symptomatic of the dearth of striking options.

Adam Lallana's continued absence and Daniel Sturridge's tendency to see the pain barrier as an immovable obstacle rather something to break through accentuated the problem.

An anomaly of Rodgers' entire reign is the manager who arrived as a champion of 4-3-3 has rarely had the squad that could make it work.

Last year, armed with Suarez and Sturridge, Rodgers reassessed with great effect but this season has been a grind from the first month.

Substitutions and constant tactical changes have often seemed as much in hope rather than expectation, Rodgers often resembling a poker player who knew the cards were worthless before he revealed them. His biggest concern must be that the dealer is convinced he has been given aces instead of jokers.

This game demonstrated how misshapen Anfield is. All that money, all those hours invested on the training pitch, and what it came down to was hoping an unseen football God had decreed Gerrard was back at Wembley next month.

When Gerrard made his Liverpool debut in 1998, the club was at the crossroads having gone three years without a trophy.

It is the cruellest bookmark to a triumphant career he will leave Liverpool in identical circumstances. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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