Liverpool played their worst half of football under Brendan Rodgers on Saturday against Aston Villa when the manager's reckless decision to send Steven Gerrard out as the holding midfielder in a two-man pairing led to being quickly overrun. The lone bright spot in Liverpool's day came at the half, when the manager made changed to the midfield that should have started the match, introducing Lucas Leiva and allowing Gerrard to move further up the pitch to a more natural attacking position and giving Liverpool the edge.
The improvement didn't last long. Twenty minutes after being introduced, Lucas picked up a knee injury. Today, it has been confirmed he will miss six to eight weeks with damaged medial ligaments. It's worse than hoped but better than feared for a player who was out for a year with a torn ACL in his other knee. For Liverpool, it is a massive blow to their top four chances, and after spending Christmas in first, it is increasingly hard to favour them ahead of Everton, Tottenham, or even Manchester United for the final Champions League place.
Goal differential still has them fourth, but Tottenham are now level on points while Everton lurk one back. A Liverpool side playing as they were towards the end of 2013 might be favoured, but the one that has conceded five goals to two of the Premier League's worst attacks in the last two games and struggled to control an FA Cup tie against Oldham before Lucas was introduced is another matter. A Liverpool side that could be stuck with Gerrard in the holding role against Everton next week is another matter.
Before, the question was whether Rodgers could see past his infatuation with the idea of Gerrard as a holding player for long enough to get Liverpool's suddenly teetering campaign back on track after a pair of losses over the holidays and now three poor performances on the bounce. The question now becomes whether, with the current personnel, that's possible even if the manager sees sense—at least without the club being willing to spend, and perhaps even overspend, for major midfield reinforcements.
Without that, and regardless of Liverpool's increasingly tenuous hold on the top four, it may be time to start coming to grips with the likelihood that this won't be the season that sees Liverpool make it back to the Champions League. With the strong platform provided by the first half of the season and the top four theirs to lose just a month ago, allowing that outcome would stand as indictment of both the manager and the club's owners.