An Encouraging Performance

Originally published on website.

Brendan Rodgers first trip leading Liverpool into the Bernabeu began with a surprising line-up.

With a number of consistent starters on the bench, the manager’s selection no doubt divided opinions among supporters. Yet, with Chelsea at the weekend, victory unlikely against the competition’s defending champions at their home ground, and a squad that has not exactly performed well of late, changes were not completely out of order. This new starting eleven competed bravely in a 1-0 defeat to Real Madrid.

From the opening whistle, Liverpool looked lively and hungry to play, passing with greater pace and precision than recent weeks. Despite an early attempt in the fourth minute, when James Rodriguez quick shot from inside the arc was saved by Simon Mignolet and the Reds continued to get on the ball.

Early on Liverpool worked the ball but still lacked precision in the final third. Both sides played at a frenzied pace, committing numbers in attack. In fact it looked like Liverpool might risk getting caught upfield and exposed on the counter attack. However, they worked hard to maintain a good shape and balance defensively.

Still, in the 10th minute Martin Skrtel nearly gifted Madrid a goal, lingering and losing the ball just outside the area to the pressure of Karim Benzema, who pounced and found a trailing Christiano Ronaldo. Yet, Mignolet flashed a save to deflect the shot over the bar for a corner.

From that point, Real began to seize control of the match and Liverpool began to drop deeper into their half, trying to be compact while looking to spring forward with pace. Any counter attacks amounted to little more than interruptions in Real’s possession. They virtually set up camp in the Liverpool half, working ball around the pitch, probing, with Luka Modric pulling the strings and looking to pull the Reds out of shape and break into space quickly.

There were a couple of scares. In the 16th minute, Kolo Toure crashed into Mignolet causing some panic when the ball did not find its way out of play, but Liverpool recovered. A couple of minutes later Ronaldo sprinted past three Reds before firing a a shot from an unlikely angle, right at Mignolet.

Liverpool’s urgency then started to increase again for a short stretch, as they buzzed around and frustrated Madrid without the ball and looked to move the ball quickly when in possession. However, in the 27th minute, the home side broke through when Marcelo swung a cross from just inside the left of the penalty area towards the back post, where Benzema peeled off Toure’s shoulder and finished into the roof of the net. While the quality sequence of play may have found Toure momentarily ball watching, as well as freezing Mignolet on his line, the service and finish were top class.

After the goal, Madrid showed that their squad not only has more quality but is a physically strong, rugged side capable of imposing themselves on their opponent. In particular, the center half pairing of Sergio Ramos and Varane were able to quickly close down isolated forward runs by Fabio Borini and Lazar Markovic. Still, Liverpool continued to fight and refused to surrender.

In the 34th minute, Ronaldo nearly tallied with a wicked free kick from 28 yards out, forcing a blocking save from Mignolet.  A moment later, Verane chipped an impressive diagonal ball over-the-top, on to the chest of Benzema, whose advancing run split Skrtel and Toure, but Toure put the ball over the crossbar and out of play. For a short time, Real attacked in a series of waves that rained shots down on the Liverpool goal but Mignolet was up to the challenge.

In the final five minutes of the half, Liverpool gathered a few minutes of possession that found them deep in Real’s box but unable to find any cutting edge.

The second half began with no changes to the sides and Real fell into control again. Two minutes after the restart, Skrtel was booked for a late challenge on Ronaldo just outside left corner of the box but the free kick amounted to nothing.

In the 53rd minute, Markovic picked the ball up deep in Liverpool’s end and went on a blinding run through half of the home side before being chopped down by Rodriguez, who received a yellow card for the foul. The move marked another run of play that saw Liverpool attempting to make a contest of things.

Three minutes later Alberto Moreno flashed a shot in from outside the penalty area for an easy Casillas save. It was the first real attack the Real keeper was called upon to react.

Then in the 58th minute, Adam Lallana received a Moreno pass with a nifty turn to slip between two Real defenders and into the box, only to slide a shot wide right of the outstretched Casillas and goal. It was the closest that Liverpool would come to threatening.

Before long, Real’s Ronaldo and Benzema turned Liverpool’s defense inside-out and had them scrambling, but Toure recovered to block a Ronaldo shot out of play. Even though the Reds defense was occasionally frantic, they maintained the organisation and closed quickly, absorbing the attack.

However, in the 69th minute Marcelo nearly found Benzema again with a low cross that skipped to the far post before the striker mishit high and wide.

Immediately after, Raheem Sterling came on for Markovic and Steven Gerrard replaced Lucas Leiva. In the ensuing action, Marcelo broke down the wing and pulled a low cross back along the pitch to substitute Gareth Bale. In Bale’s first real threat for the home side, he nearly dashed the Reds’ hopes when he slammed a shot off the crossbar.

Then at 76 minutes, Philippe Coutinho replaced Emre Can, who put in an admirable shift, and Liverpool looked to possibly steal a draw.

Gerrard sprayed diagonal balls from deep to try and push the attack forward with more urgency and directness, but Sterling and Coutinho never quite settled into the match and Real coasted to a one goal victory.

Although Liverpool rarely tested Real’s defense and did ultimately falter, this was a performance that offered encouragement after a run of inconsistent and struggling form. They looked energetic and committed, even pinging the ball around the midfield with purpose in a manner that has been sorely missing.

Even in defeat, this was an encouraging performance and gave the travelling supporters a determined show. Questions remain and solutions are still wanting, as the result was never really in doubt, but spirited display by the unlikely starting eleven revealed that this Liverpool side remains in the fight and continues to seek answers. Playing in Madrid may provide easy motivation, but so too should Chelsea’s arrival on Saturday. The effort and work shown in this match will be needed again.

A Half Step Is A Gulf Too Wide

Originally published on 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.