He might be the first former Manchester United great to be applauded off Anfield by part of the home support and there are not many opposing players who cross the touchline here to have their hand shaken by the Liverpool manager. But then this is Cristiano Ronaldo, who strolled to his seat on the bench on 75 minutes with the insouciance of a man popping out for a paper.
Business as usual for the world’s best, and goal No 70 in the Champions League that puts him within one of Raul’s record in the competition. He had never scored at Anfield before last night and he will doubtless file his goal, his 21 of the season, along with the hundreds of others. For Brendan Rodgers and his Liverpool players it might be that much harder to consign to history.
It was a bad night for Liverpool back in the Champions League big-time, an occasion when they found themselves hopelessly out of their depth in defence in the first half and then, three goals down by the break, unable to do anything to remedy the situation. Each one of Madrid’s substituted players was applauded off by the home crowd, including the marvellous Toni Kroos, but this was not an extraordinary performance from the away team. It was, nonetheless, more than enough to beat Liverpool.
They looked very ordinary, as they had against Queen’s Park Rangers on Sunday, and matters were not helped by another Mario Balotelli performance to forget. His half-time shirt-swap with Pepe, a preface to his substitution, was a moment to make every Liverpool fan cringe, but that was a detail to the bigger picture. That, unfortunately for Rodgers, is that without the injured Daniel Sturridge, this is a team that lacks a sharp edge in attack.
They defended woefully for the two Karim Benzema goals that followed Ronaldo’s strike and from then on they seemed unable to wrest control of the game from Kroos and Luka Modric in midfield. There were periods when Madrid stroked the ball around on the halfway line and Liverpool’s midfield seemed unsure whether stepping up to challenge them was to fall into a terrible trap.
It started with the usual noise and intensity that you would expect of a return to the big Anfield European nights and for a little while it seemed like home side were feeding off that energy, and then gradually, Liverpool discovered they were up against a very good team indeed.
Notice was served with Ronaldo’s opening goal, one of those crushing reminders for the opposition of where they stand in the football universe. One only needs to leave the door fractionally ajar for Ronaldo and he will ransack the whole house. What’s more, he will give you a cheery thumbs-up on the way out.
Without wishing to get too giddy about the finish, there was only one moment in the entire arc of the pass when it had to be hit, and one true trajectory for the shot that would take it past Simon Mignolet. When you score as many goals as Ronaldo does, the back-catalogue will feature many more that are better, but this was still a strike to take the breath away and hush a stadium.
We were 23 minutes in when Ronaldo pushed the ball to James Rodriguez on the edge of the box and darted forward for the return. With Dejan Lovren behind him and Martin Skrtel closing in from the other side he took the shot quickly, drifting it out of the reach of Mignolet.
Up to then, Liverpool had looked confident rather than dangerous. There was a case that Alvaro Arbeloa had fouled Raheem Sterling when the teenager ran through on six minutes. Sterling partnered Balotelli in attack ahead of a midfield diamond with Philippe Coutinho at the point of it. The Brazilian struck the post in the closing stages of the first half, as close as Liverpool got to scoring before the break.
Before then, there were two more goals and neither of them said much for Liverpool’s defence. Kroos, running the midfield from a space that was all his own just inside the home side’s half, made the second. Madrid worked the ball to the left where Kroos had enough time to glance up and land a cross onto the head of Benzema, whose gentle header sailed beyond Mignolet.
By then, there had already been a gasp around the stadium – involuntary because they had booed Ronaldo at the start – when the Madrid No 7 killed another long ball from Rodriguez on the inside of his foot. The mild panic in Liverpool’s ranks was best encapsulated in a moment when Glen Johnson tackled Steven Gerrard in midfield. The full-back had his work cut out with Ronaldo.
The third goal was the real blow, a corner from Kroos that Pepe took on his chest. The Madrid defender, along with Skrtel and Mignolet, converged on the ball and it was Pepe who got there first. He flicked it on to Benzema who had the routine task of poking it in.
It was turning into something of a masterclass from Madrid who kept the ball for long periods around their halfway line, with Modric and Kroos exchanging passes while they pondered what to do with it. On the left side, in place of the injured Gareth Bale, Isco was a contender to be his team’s outstanding player with his work-rate and productivity.
Ronaldo might have had his second at the tail-end of a move that began with Marcelo setting Isco free down the left. He cut the ball back intelligently to Benzema who picked out Ronaldo to his right with one good touch. They look for Ronaldo all the time, and who can blame them, but he does occasionally miss. This time Mignolet saved well with his legs.
As on Sunday against QPR, the key attacking threat for Liverpool – in fact the only man who seemed capable of making things happen – was Sterling. He had a shot tipped over by Iker Casillas on 70 minutes and he was the only player who, with the ball at his feet, gave the away side reason to worry.
In the end they went with a whimper, and a round of applause for Madrid, who won ahead of the weekend’s game against Barcelona at a canter. There is no shame in losing to a team this good; the despair comes from how easy Madrid made it look.
Liverpool (4-1-3-2): Mignolet; Johnson, Skrtel, Lovren, Moreno; Gerrard; Allen, Coutinho, Henderson; Sterling, Balotelli.
Subs: Lallana/Balotelli ht, Can/Henderson 67, Markovic/Coutinho 67
Real Madrid (4-4-2): Casillas; Arbeloa, Varane, Pepe, Marcelo; Rodriguez, Kroos, Modric, Isco; Benzema, Ronaldo.
Subs: Khedira/Ronaldo 75, Illarramendi/Kroos 81, Nacho/Marcelo 85
Booked: Real Madrid Kroos
Referee: N Rizzoli (Italy).
Man of the match: Kroos
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