A Half Step Is A Gulf Too Wide

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

The supporters were buzzing around Anfield in full voice for a beloved European night, chanting and urging them home.

Yet, despite the opening 20 minutes of a high tempo and aggressive pressure Liverpool were undone by the tournament’s defending champions Real Madrid.

The opening 20 minutes of the match were more than encouraging for the Reds. A frenzied pace and persistent pressure characterized Liverpool from the opening whistle. Within the first minute Jordan Henderson put a marker tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo, suggesting what kind of night might be in store. However the Merseysiders could not find a finish to capitalize on the hungry start.

Real Madrid patiently waited for their chance to gain some possession, despite Liverpool preventing them from finding any kind of rhythm. After the initial phase waned, the Reds found passing out of their half more difficult. The pace of the game slowed slightly, allowing Madrid half a step more when on the ball.

That half step would prove enough. For in the 23rd minute, Ronaldo drifted inside and started a sequence of play that included passing to James Rodriguez, before driving hard right through the middle of Liverpool’s defense. Rodriguez then chipped a sublime ball, beating five players, including splitting the center halves, back through to Ronaldo. From there, Ronaldo picked it on the bounce and spun a class finish to the far post, beyond an outstretched Simon Mignolet. It might have seemed against the run of play, but that was all it would take.

Madrid grew stronger with the goal. The visitors started to take control, possessing and probing the Reds defense, pinning them back in their defensive third. Liverpool tryed to maintain their shape, but were unable to maintain the high press against the pinpoint passing of the Madristas.

In the 30th minute, Karim Benzema doubled the away advantage, beating Glen Johnson in the air from a deep diagonal Toni Kroos cross. Essentially unchallenged, the Frenchmen climbed high and delicately looped a header up and over Mignolet, descending into the far back corner of the net. It was another class finish from the Spanish giants.

With a second goal, Real Madrid settled into cruise control, swarming defensively initially and fouling any hint of penetration from the Reds. Kroos’ yellow card for knocking Raheem Sterling off the ball before posing any genuine threat in the 35th minute illustrated Madrid’s level of tactical nous and confidence. Liverpool were too easily defused.

Liverpool were nearly exposed again, playing a high defensive line and allowing Ronaldo a chance to get in behind. Instead, Johnson surrendered a corner. Liverpool’s inability to defend set pieces was cruelly exposed again. Benzema pounced on a loose ball in the box from a corner kick in the 41st minute for his brace. Conceding another corner, this one was the result of three Madrid touches in the box before it found the back of the net. At 3-0 down the match was essentially finished.

A couple of minutes later, Joe Allen nearly found the far post from a quick Mario Balotelli cross, but Ilker Casillas flashed a glove and could have reached it, but did not need to as it was always hooking wide.

Then, in stoppage time, Philippe Coutinho nearly got on the scoresheet, rattling a shot off the far post from distance in the final seconds of the half. In many ways, the moment illustrated the night – a half chance from distance that could not be finished.

The second half was far less eventful, apart from Mario Balotelli getting substituted at the break in favour of Adam Lallana. The attacking tempo and quick passes returned in Balotelli’s absence. Apart from a few more half chances, the Reds may have been able to get on the ball but could never pose much genuine threat. Madrid dropped into game management mode.

Ronaldo nearly had a brace in the 64th minute, when he pulled down Benzema’s cross and was in one-on-one with Mignolet. However, the keeper got a foot on the shot deflecting out of play.

As the game wound down, the Anfield crowd rallied their voices again in an attempt to raise the home side, which was wracked defensively and in serious need of confidence. Granted the overcoming the Galaticos was always going to be a big ask, but the Reds are reeling presently and desperately in need of solutions that seem just out of reach.

There were some positives but not enough of them to counterbalance the sheer quality of the ten-time European Cup winners. Coutinho looks closer to his former self. Sterling clearly remains the Reds best player on the pitch. Meanwhile, Lallana will make more of an impact as the season continues. Even newcomers, Emre Can and Lazar Markovic showed that their futures are bright. Still, it does not seem enough, nor does the potential look to be realised as quickly as needed.

Balotelli being pulled at the half, after another display plagued by poor decisions and ineffectiveness, only highlights the precarious lack of positive moves available. Brendan Rodgers will need to secure another league win against Hull City this Saturday in the hope of salvaging belief.

Patience, already in short supply, will only become more strained if Liverpool cannot find a way to grind out results against mid to low table teams. The danger of falling too far off the pace is real in this current crucial run of fixtures. Thoughts of how early it still is in the season can simply no longer apply.

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