Boss Brendan Rodgers took a huge gamble by resting many of his key players ahead of a big match at home to Chelsea on the weekend, knowing that wins against Ludogorets and Basel in the Reds’ final two group stage matches will see them qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League regardless of the result against Real.
Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho, Sterling, Johnson and Balotelli all started on the bench as the likes of Toure, Lucas, Can, Markovic and Borini were given a rare run out against possibly the best club side in the world right now.
It was a League Cup line up for a Champions League clash; as a result, few gave Liverpool even an outside chance of taking anything from the contest before the match, with many expecting them to suffer a confidence crushing pasting at the hands of the reigning European champions, similar to the one that Carlo Ancelotti’s men dished out at Anfield a fortnight ago.
Instead, remarkably Liverpool more than held their own and arguably deserved to take a point from a match in which many fringe players presented Rodgers with a compelling case for their inclusion in the first eleven more frequently.
Marshalled by the outstanding Kolo Toure, Liverpool’s defence was fantastic, frustrating a Madrid attack composed of the world class talents Benzema, Ronaldo, Rodriguez and Isco, who failed to find the net twice in a game for the first time since mid-September. On the right hand side, Manquillo managed to keep Ronaldo quiet, while Moreno was Liverpool’s main attacking threat down the left, working encouragingly well with Lallana, who was equally impressive.
Mignolet was also on form behind the back four, making several decent saves, including two in the first ten minutes. First, he palmed Benzema’s effort behind after Rodriguez and Isco had linked up well to set up the French striker. Then, a lapse of concentration from stand-in skipper Skrtel, one of few players who perhaps wasn’t at his best, allowed Ronaldo to side-foot goalwards from close range, with only the Belgian keeper’s brilliance preventing him opening the scoring.
Although lacking in the final third, Liverpool were performing in a composed manner, keeping the ball well and growing in confidence, as evidenced by Kolo Toure’s marauding run down the left wing midway through the first 45 minutes, which was reminiscent of the 33-year old’s glory years as a full back at Arsenal.
The only thing missing was a goal threat because, although he worked admirably hard, Borini remained isolated as Liverpool sat deep, held their shape and stayed compact. Markovic and Lallana occasionally broke forward, the former sprinting promisingly forward at one point only to be denied by Varane, but Borini was largely left to plough a lone furrow up front.
|Rodgers boldly made seven changes to the team that lost at Newcastle|
|One of Toure's many exceptional interceptions|
|Benzema broke the deadlock|
|The travelling Kop was in fine form as always|
Importantly, at that point Liverpool didn’t cave into the immense Madrid pressure, as they had done during their first half collapse at home to the Spanish giants. Instead, they re-grouped and saw out the half, Mignolet dealing with Ronaldo’s 35-yard free kick, which was the best chance that the hosts created prior to the interval.
After the break, Liverpool were a little more adventurous, pinpointing former Liverpool right back Alvaro Arbeloa as a weak point in Madrid’s defence to exploit. Just before the hour mark, Moreno’s intelligent pass picked out Lallana, who cleverly opened up his body with a neat touch before shooting across Casillas and inches wide of the far post.
Soon after, Borini’s free kick deflected off a disintegrating wall and fizzed just wide of the target, as the Reds began to believe in their ability to execute their plan to nick a goal after keeping things tight initially.
In accord with those tactics, Rodgers brought on Gerrard and Sterling for the final 20 minutes. The former’s passing range added an extra dimension to the away side’s attack, while the latter’s pace was welcome because Markovic, despite probably putting in his best performance in a Red shirt, was becoming less effective as he tired.
Real were playing within themselves; however, they could still go up a couple of gears when they wanted to. That was demonstrated when a magnificent block from Toure was required to prevent Ronaldo doubling the hosts’ advantage after the twisting and turning Portuguese had left Skrtel on the turf. Benzema then shot off target from close range at the back post after getting on the end of Marcelo’s vicious cross, in what was almost a re-run of his first half goal.
Coutinho was brought on in place of Can to provide some more creativity in Real’s half during the final 15 minutes, but unfortunately the Merseysiders couldn’t carve open that one chance that they needed to grab a goal and steal a point, Borini’s strike into the net after clearly being called up by referee Viktor Kassai for a soft foul on Sergio Ramos the closest Liverpool came to levelling.
Nevertheless, Liverpool can be immensely proud of this terrific performance, which could prove a turning point in their season. The confidence engendered by what was essentially their B-team going toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the world and only just missing out on getting a point could be what kick starts the Reds’ faltering season.