Brendan Rodgers said that he disapproved of Mario Balotelli’s half-time shirt-swap with Pepe in the 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid, but defended his Liverpool players for not “crumbling” at three goals behind to the European champions.
The Liverpool manager said that his team had been “sloppy” in conceding the second and third goals by Karim Benzema before half-time but had responded well after the break. He also defended Raheem Sterling over the reports that the teenager went out the night he returned from Estonia – the Euro 2016 qualifier which Roy Hodgson described the player as being “too tired” to play in.
It was thought that it was Pepe who initiated the shirt-exchange with Balotelli, which took place in full view of the cameras as the teams went down the tunnel. There was criticism of Balotelli for swap – “Don’t get me started,” was Graeme Souness’ verdict from the television studio. Rodgers said the matter would be dealt with inside the club.
The Liverpool manager said that Balotelli’s subsequent substitution at half-time was “purely tactical” and not a response to the player’s shirt swap. Asked whether he felt that exchanging shirts at half-time was unacceptable, Rodgers said that his position, as with last season when Philippe Coutinho and Mamadou Sakho at Chelsea, was “exactly the same”.
“We had an incident last season with players [doing the same] and it was dealt with internally. I heard about it when I came off the pitch. It is not something I stand for. It is something you do at the end of the game.
Rodgers said that Madrid had been “outstanding”. “They are a fantastic team and have great players. I am also proud of my players even though we lost 3-0. You see many teams crumble 3-0 especially against that quality and speed on the counter attack. We have got a very young team and I was proud of the way they kept going.”
Rodgers also said that Raheem Sterling’s night-out on returning from Estonia with the England squad nine days earlier had been “100 per cent” permissible under Liverpool’s rules. Sterling was out with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on returning with the England squad.
Rodgers said: “I think for Raheem it is obviously just important he focuses on his football. It is unfortunate for him, a young kid of 19, six days before a game and on a day off can’t go out. It is a story for some but people who read it I think realise there isn’t a story there. I thought he was terrific. With his rise people want to knock you but he knows when to rest and when to work.”
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