Real Madrid vs Liverpool analysis: Brendan Rodgers masterminds spirited display but was it worthy of Liverpool?

Real Madrid 1 Liverpool 0: The Liverpool manager opted to rest a number of players, including captain Steven Gerrard

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The Independent Online

The Santiago Bernabeu had this one marked down as the pick of Real Madrid’s Champions League group games but in the end it was just like watching La Liga.

How many times this season will Carlo Ancelotti’s side face a team who have rested four or five top players for their next fixture – one they believe they can actually win. Liverpool might easily have been Levante. It was attack against a well-manned defence; and it all worked very well for about 30 minutes until the first goal went in – pretty much as it tends to in the domestic competition.

Real Madrid were quite possibly not as surprised by Brendan Rodgers’ team selection as most Liverpool supporters. Several media outlets had predicted an understrength side on the eve of the game, almost as if one of Liverpool’s Spanish contingent had tipped them off that this would not be the Raheem Sterling, Steven Gerrard, Mario Balotelli full-strength side Spanish football fans had been watching during extensive coverage of the Premier League this season.

Regardless of how much Real knew about it before hand, Rodgers’ reserves side could not have helped but make them even more relaxed than they were already coming into the game off the back of 11 straight wins.

In the tunnel there were high fives for the lucky boys and girls picked by Uefa to walk out hand in hand with their idols. On the other side of the tunnel Liverpool players were not talking to the children, and they weren’t talking to each other either.

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Benzema scored the only goal

 

On the pitch Madrid found themselves in La Liga mode, trying to find a way through the massed ranks while making sure they were not picked off on the counter-attack – which, with Lazar Markovic playing instead of Raheem Sterling, never looked likely.

Rodgers’ decision to sacrifice attack for bodies behind the ball did succeed in smothering Real Madrid’s four-man midfield of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, James and Isco – the latter two running into each other midway through the first half.

In goal Iker Casillas was struggling to keep warm, and high in the stand behind him, when the Real fans found their voice it was to sing disparagingly about Barcelona and not about the strangely cagey game they were watching.

For large parts the tactics had silenced the Bernabeu, with only Liverpool supporters audible as Kolo Touré dribbled around James. Those first 27 minutes before Real scored will have enhanced Rodgers’ reputation among some of the sporting directors of Spain’s top sides.

 

He has made no secret of his desire one day to test himself in La Liga – telling Spanish reporters, in Spanish, before the first leg: “It would be wrong to speak Spanish here but if I’m coaching in Spain one day I will” when they asked him if he could answer them in Spanish.  

Real Madrid have rolled over everyone who has visited the Bernabeu this season and with a healthy goal average, so this was proof that the league leaders could be contained. But there will be others who will wonder why Rodgers could not have coupled that defensive doggedness with a more attacking threat.

When Rodgers finally brought on Gerrard, Sterling and then Coutinho, Carlo Ancelotti had only made one change, with Gareth Bale released down the right in place of James. The Real manager turned nervously to his English assistant, Paul Clement, when Casillas passed the ball out to a marked Marcelo instead of clearing it as Madrid, still with their narrow one-goal advantage, were pinned further back by Liverpool.

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Ancelotti is used to having all three of his substitutes on by the 80-minute mark but this was no night for giving any of his most important players the last 10 minutes off. Cristiano Ronaldo was even brought off for the last 10 minutes but he was in no mood to give up on his battle with Touré – a monumental mismatch on paper that had played out very differently on the pitch. Ronaldo had been unable to add to his 55 Champions League goals in 55 matches for Real and the home side had need Karim Benzema’s 121st Real Madrid goal in 250 games to get them the points.

But the points they had. Liverpool went away having avoided the hiding so many had predicted but they had left with nothing all the same. It was a display worthy of a typically spirited La Liga underdog. What the whole of Spain will be asking today is: was it worthy of Liverpool.

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