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12th Sep 2016

Why Celtic’s Champions League campaign gives Brendan Rodgers the chance to right the wrongs of his Liverpool reign

He never quite cracked it with Liverpool

Tony Barrett

The last time Brendan Rodgers was in the away dressing room of a major Spanish club, he had a simple message for his players. “Next time we come here it will be different,” he said.

Liverpool had just lost 1-0 to Real Madrid, the kind of defeat that brings no shame, but the weakened team he fielded prompted controversy and criticism. All of that would probably have been worthwhile had Rodgers and Liverpool ever got back to that stage as he had hoped, but they never did.

That Rodgers has a difficult relationship with Europe, one that remains unfulfilled and subject to scrutiny, is borne out by what happened at the Santiago Bernabeu in early November 2014.

As things stand, he is yet to make his mark on the continent in any meaningful fashion with question marks hanging over his tactics and game management. In particular, setting up his teams so that they are difficult to break down has often proven beyond him, a problem that has continued into his early days at Celtic if their 2-0 defeat away to Hapoel Be’er Sheva is any indication.

during the UEFA Champions League Play-off First leg match between Celtic and Hapoel Beer-Sheva at Celtic Park on August 17, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland.

The open and attractive playing style that Rodgers prefers, one in which players are more effective on the ball than they are off it, might lend itself well to the domestic leagues of England and Scotland but when it comes to the continent, such freedom of expression can play into the hands of even limited opponents if they are equipped with a more conservative, regimented tactical approach designed to stifle and exploit weakness. In the 18 European games that he took charge of Liverpool in Europe, they won only six, scoring 22 and conceding 24.

The tone was set in his first competitive European game in charge, a 5-3 victory away to Young Boys Berne four years ago this month which saw a youthful Liverpool side trailing 3-2 with 20 minutes left only for a remarkable comeback to spare them what would have been an embarrassing defeat.

An equally eventful 3-2 defeat followed against Udinese at Anfield as defensive lapses contributed to a loss that came despite Liverpool’s dominance of possession.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 26: Liverpool Manager Brendan Rogers encourages Fabio Borini of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield on August 26, 2012 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

In mitigation, that was a time when Rodgers was not only working with a squad in need of improvement to which he had only added two signings of his own – Fabio Borini and Joe Allen – he was also using the Europa League to blood some of Liverpool’s promising young players as he looked to save senior stars for Premier League action.

He was also new to European football, a factor which showed at times but one which should be taken into account when his record is held up to any kind of scrutiny.

It was in the return fixture against Young Boys that a problem appeared that continued to recur throughout his Anfield tenure. With Liverpool 2-1 up heading into the penultimate minute of a game that they deserved to win, the Swiss equalised at the death as they cut a swathe through what was supposed to be Liverpool’s midfield and defence without ever being hindered.

The timing of the goal was bad enough but the lack of control that allowed it to happen suggested that the failure was caused by faulty design rather than some kind of accident that would not be repeated.

Liverpool managed to qualify from the group with a credible and decisive 1-0 win in Udinese that went against type but the sense that they would not always prove as defensively durable remained and there was something predictable and appropriate about the manner of their eventual exit from the competition – a loss to Zenit St Petersburg on away goals.

Over the two legs, Liverpool’s attack had scored three goals, all of them in the second leg at Anfield, but their failure to keep a clean sheet both at home and away cost them dear. There was no case for their defence.

It would be 18 months before Liverpool played European football again and prior to their return, this time in the Champions League, Rodgers was at pains to stress that they were not coming back as “tourists.”

“We believe it is where we belong and where we should be playing,” he said. “We are Liverpool, we are five times winners of the European Cup and we are synonymous with its best traditions. Our players are excited by the challenges ahead, not daunted by them.” Those challenges, though, proved too much and Liverpool’s involvement lasted only 12 weeks as they finished third in their group behind Real Madrid and FC Basel.

Their final home game against Basel was particularly disappointing as Liverpool went into it knowing that victory would take them into the knockout stages but a 1-1 draw put paid to those hopes.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 09: Basel players celebrate their team's 1-1 draw as the final whistle blows during the UEFA Champions League group B match between Liverpool and FC Basel 1893 at Anfield on December 9, 2014 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

“We just weren’t good enough,” Rodgers conceded. “We weren’t anywhere near where we wanted to be, not even close.”

It was an admission that applied on the night but also to Liverpool’s impact on Europe as a whole under his management. There was never a stage when anyone felt that he or they had cracked it and shortly after exiting the Champions League, Liverpool also dropped out of the Europa League having lost on penalties to Besiktas.

Rodgers only managed Liverpool in Europe on two further occasions with FC Sion holding them to a draw at Anfield in his penultimate game in charge. The paucity of Liverpool’s performance that night prompted vociferous booing from the home fans when the game ended and Rodgers’s fate was all but sealed. He was sacked three days later.

So what we have is a picture of a manager who is yet to come to terms with the demands of European football but maybe the expectations that were placed on him were too high.

To put Rodgers’ record in perspective, Jurgen Klopp, his successor at Liverpool, also struggled in Europe initially and took three seasons to come up with an effective gameplan that allowed Borussia Dortmund to flourish.

When Celtic take to the field at the Nou Camp tomorrow night, it will mark the start of Rodgers’ fourth European campaign. The learner plates might have been removed but he remains a novice at this level.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 12: Manager of Celtic FC Brendan Rogers faces the media during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League Group C match against FC Barcelona at Camp Nou on September 12, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

One of Rodgers’ biggest irritations with modern football stems from a belief that good homegrown coaches are rarely given the chance to prove themselves again at the highest level if they have experienced a significant failure.

Ironically, he has benefited from being given exactly that kind of opportunity by Celtic and although they are in a qualifying group that few would expect them to thrive in the hope will be that their manager will use past experience to make his team as hard to beat as they possibly can be.

The lessons of the past have been harsh ones for Rodgers but, regardless of what his critics claim, he has shown ample willingness to learn and more than enough tactical innovation in his managerial career to date to hold his own in Europe at the very least.

When he enters a Spanish dressing room again tomorrow he should do so in the knowledge that he has it within his gift to enhance his own reputation even though advancing his team may prove beyond him. Picking his strongest possible team would definitely be a good starting point.   

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