SHAFAQNA – For many, it was a finish that highlighted all that is best about the Premier League. When the tapes are reviewed at Real Madrid’s training complex in Valdebebas, however, it will likely be received as further evidence that Wednesday’s trip to Anfield should hold few fears.
Liverpool head back to Merseyside having secured back-to-back wins for the first time in this troubled season, but no one who watched Sunday’s frantic finale at Loftus Road was under any illusions. QPR struck the crossbar twice and scored four of the games five goals, yet came away with nothing.
“I’m still in shock to be honest,” Steven Gerrard told Sky Sports after the match. “We were very lucky. We could have had no complaints if we’d come away with nothing. Our performance needs to be better.
“It was very bitty, stop-start. The only thing you can say is we kept going. We got our reward but we need to improve.”
The truth was that QPR, for all their limitations, had exposed every problem that has blighted life after Luis Suarez for Liverpool.
Bobby Zamora and Charlie Austin bullied Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren, while Simon Mignolet once again failed to command his area in the manner of an elite goalkeeper. All three conspired to give Leroy Fer two excellent chances to open the scoring before half-time.
Further forward, Gerrard looked utterly uncomfortable with the kind of advanced midfield role in which he used to dominate, quickly opting to drift into deeper areas and attempt typically ambitious long-range diagonal passes.
And at the head of Brendan Rodgers’ turgid system, Mario Balotelli’s personal nightmare continues. With aborted runs, lazy shots and frequent glaring gesticulations, it is a hell largely of his own making, but confidence has clearly become a chronic issue. One goal in nine games tells its own story and one blazing open-goal miss in the second half was Fernando Torres-esque.
“It’ll drop for the boy,” Rodgers insisted after the match. “The most important thing to me is his work rate. He’s working really hard. It’ll drop for him.
“I’ve said before, Luis [Suarez] is irreplaceable, a real world-class talent. That’s not what’s being asked of Mario. He’s a great boy, I’ve enjoyed working with him. He wants to be better. He’s a completely different player to Luis.”
With Daniel Sturridge sidelined for at least another fortnight and Madrid on the horizon, Rodgers needs it to drop for Balotelli, mainly because dropping him doesn’t appear to be an option. Yet perhaps his words of support would carry more weight without the public admission earlier this month that the troubled Italian was not his top target in the summer transfer market.
The most avoidable aspect of Liverpool’s crisis at both ends of the pitch is an ongoing ineptitude at defensive set-pieces. Eduardo Vargas’ second goal from the QPR bench – a routine unmarked near-post header from Leroy Fer’s injury-time corner – was their fifth conceded from dead-ball situations in eight matches.
On a day of few positives, there were at least flashes in the final moments of the counter-attacking prowess that made Liverpool so thrilling and deadly last season, with a visibly refreshed Raheem Sterling and decisive Coutinho at the heart of much of their best work. This enduring ability alone may give Rodgers hope of fending off wave after wave of pressure from a star-studded Madrid attack that has racked up 40 goals in its first 13 matches this term.
But unless Liverpool can tighten up defensively and garner their threat on the transition with goals of their own, being part of a ‘great advert for the Premier League’ will be scant consolation amid a world of pain on Wednesday.