Despite a promising start, the Merseysiders were put to the sword by three goals in just under 20 first half minutes by the ruthless Real Madrid, as the Spaniards claimed the ascendancy in Group B while the Reds’ hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Champions League in their first season back in the elite European competition suffered a blow.
To make matters worse, star summer signing Mario Balotelli courted the headlines for all the wrong reasons yet again after scandalously swapping shirts with Real Madrid’s Pepe in the tunnel at half time. The move outraged supporters already exasperated at another lifeless performance from the Italian, who was replaced by Adam Lallana at the break.
The fact that manager Brendan Rodgers was oblivious to the shirt swap until the end of the game and replaced Balotelli not as a punishment for his misdemeanour, but rather to increase the work rate and movement down the middle was a damning indictment on Balotelli, who will now rightly face disciplinary action from the club.
Heading into the tasty tie on the back of Sunday’s narrow escape at Loftus Road was far from ideal, but Kopites hoped for another European night to remember at Anfield and played their part in spurring the team on, producing a spine-tingling rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ before kick-off. Unfortunately, it only took 20 minutes for their dreams of a repeat of Liverpool’s 4-0 win against Real Madrid in 2009 to be dashed.
Surprisingly, the hosts started the better, pinning their opponents back with an urgency, intensity and high tempo that characterised their displays last season but has been conspicuous by its absence during the current campaign. However, Carlo Ancelotti’s men anticipated a quick start and rolled with the early punches, Casillas turning away Gerrard’s 35-yard strike, which, for all their early pressure, was the only real chance that Liverpool created. The European champions then proceeded to deliver three devastating blows that left Liverpool reeling.
The first goal was simply out of this world. There was nothing the Reds’ defence could do to stop Cristiano Ronaldo scoring his first goal at Anfield and his 70th in the Champions League. Starting the move in midfield, the former Manchester United player sprinted forward determinedly, latching on to James Rodriguez’s stunning chipped pass before thumping home from 15 yards.
|Ronaldo opened the scoring with a world class goal|
On both occasions, Liverpool’s vulnerability from set pieces was exposed yet again. First, on the half hour mark a half-cleared corner found its way to Toni Kroos. Joe Allen gave the German international too much time, allowing Kroos to float a cross to Karim Benzema at the back post, who looped a header beyond Mignolet and into the far corner of the net.
Then, Liverpool produced some school-boy defending that was even more embarrassing four minutes before the break. Somehow three men managed to miss a header from a corner, then Mignolet and Skrtel got in a tangle in the box before Benzema eventually turned the loose ball home to double his tally for the evening.
|Benzema looped a header into the net...|
|...then bundled home after another defensive blunder from Liverpool|
Crushed and dejected, Liverpool knew there was very little chance of reproducing the magic of Istanbul and recovering from a three-goal deficit against another Carlo Ancelotti side, although it might have been a different story had Coutinho’s fierce strike in the dying embers of first half injury time found the back of the net rather than rebounding back off the post.
As it was, it was a case of damage limitation for Liverpool from then on. With the shirt-swapping Balotelli substituted, Sterling assumed the role of central striker while the Italian’s replacement Adam Lallana added some much needed energy in behind, skimming a low strike into Casillas’ arms six minutes after the restart.
Fortunately, the Merseysiders managed to prevent Madrid adding further goals and thus avoid the infliction of greater damage on their goal difference, as well as sparing their blushes. The visitors remained dominant, however, despite clearly taking their foot off the gas in anticipation of el clasico on the weekend, and they squandered two gilt-edged goal scoring opportunities.
First, Ronaldo sent an uncharacteristically poor shot against the shins of Mignolet when one-on-one with the Belgian keeper after Isco and Benzema combined to set him up. Ten minutes later, purposeful attacking play from Benzema allowed him to put the ball on a plate for another one of his teammates. This time it was World Cup sensation James Rodriguez who wasted the chance, side-footing a yard wide.
With the game won, Cristiano Ronaldo was substituted for the final 15 minutes, demonstrated just how absolute Real Madrid’s supremacy was. At the same time, however, the Kop took the chance to demonstrate its enduring class, clapping the Portuguese off the pitch in recognition of the world class ability that he had displayed during the match.
|Ronaldo and Rodgers shake hands after the number seven was subbed|
The task for Brendan Rodgers now is for him to somehow find a way to lift his troops so that they can get something from their trip to Madrid in two weeks’ time. Looking to the long term, the Northern Irish manager must also develop the Reds so that they reach a point where they are able to compete with the likes of Real Madrid without being taught a footballing lesson.