Liverpool taught a harsh lesson by Real Madrid
Bright start soon gives way to a dark night as Ronaldo and Benzema silence Anfield
Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo (2nd right) scores the opening goal against Liverpool at Anfield. Photograph: Phil Noble / Reuters
Liverpool’s Mario Balotelli was substituted at half-time. Photograph: Phil Noble / Reuters
Sometimes, in football, there is nothing for it but to accept that the other team are vastly superior. Liverpool have inflicted that feeling on many teams during the years when they earned the right to have a banner on the Kop reading “European Royalty” but this was a night when Real Madrid reminded them of the brilliance that is needed these days to wear the crown.
They did it devastatingly and clinically, with three first-half goals and so much refinement in their attacking that, when Cristiano Ronaldo was substituted in the second half, a crowd that once regarded him as a sworn enemy applauded him off the pitch. It was a wonderful show of appreciation and the same followed shortly afterwards for Toni Kroos and Marcelo. Liverpool were soundly beaten but at least their supporters could still recognise the opposition’s gifts.
This was the first time Liverpool have sieved three goals in the opening 45 minutes of a European game since the final in 2005. This time, however, there was not even a flicker of recovery and they should probably just be grateful that Ronaldo, Karim Benzema et al eased off in the second half.
Even then, Ronaldo shimmered with enough menace to make it feel like he could easily have established himself as the Champions League all-time leading scorer. His brilliantly delivered goal here to open the scoring put him one short of Raúl’s total of 71 and no doubt he will expect to do it when the two sides meet at the Bernabéu on November 4th. Once again, he had shown why the Ballon d’Or is in his possession.
The undercard was not shabby either. Isco, playing instead of the injured Gareth Bale, decorated the occasion with his sureness of touch. James Rodríguez started slowly, taking a nasty bang above his eye, but what a beautiful piece of artistry there was in his contribution to Ronaldo’s goal. The little dink he scuffed over Liverpool’s defence was delivered like a pitch-wedge, with almost implausible backspin, and in that moment we were reminded that the perfect pass can be every bit as beautiful as the thunderous shot or the run that takes out three defenders. Ronaldo had read the trajectory of the ball, held off Martin Skrtel and clipped a lovely, measured finish over Simon Mignolet into the far corner.
Until that point, Liverpool had shown their own menace. Amid all the sound and fury, they might also contest the night could have taken a different course if the Italian referee, Nicola Rizzoli, had not been so lenient on Álvaro Arbeloa when he ran into the back of Raheem Sterling inside the opening five minutes. Rizzoli’s only real decision ought to have been whether it merited a red card, as Sterling accelerated into the penalty area, but he waved play on and once Madrid had withstood the early pressure it was a masterclass in quick, decisive counterattacking football.
There was plenty to dismay Rodgers but what must really have galled him was the way his team crumpled after Ronaldo’s goal. Those were the moments Liverpool needed to show competitive courage and limit the damage. Instead they looked vulnerable just about every time their opponents broke forward. They were often overwhelmed, pinned into their own half, and Madrid were absolutely merciless in building an unassailable lead.
Anfield had made a heck of noise in the early passages but Carlo Ancelotti’s team wore the seen-it-all-before look that is generally attached to all great champions. More than anything, they were devastating on the break. Ronaldo was a blur of an opponent. Luka Modric and Kroos were in control of midfield, despite Jordan Henderson’s tireless running. Balotelli huffed and puffed without getting anywhere while Madrid played with purpose and knowhow and seemed well briefed about Liverpool’s ongoing inability to defend in the air.
Benzema’s goals both came that way. The first was a weighted header that looped over Mignolet, almost in slow motion, after Kroos had seen him loitering with intent at the back post. Yet it was Madrid’s third goal, after Ronaldo had won a corner, that really epitomised how fragile Liverpool were. The scrutiny of Mignolet has become a recurring theme and, once again, Liverpool’s goalkeeper will wince when he sees the replays, having come off his goalline without reaching the ball. Pepe had shown the greater determination as the ball took a ricochet and fell in the six-yard area. Martin Skrtel was hoping Mignolet would get there first but Pepe got a slight yet decisive touch in front of the goalkeeper and Benzema was left with a relatively simple finish.
Mignolet did partly redeem himself in the second half with a couple of fine saves to keep out Ronaldo and at least in that period Liverpool stopped looking quite so panicky. Adam Lallana had replaced Balotelli and the change made sense given the Italian’s inability to make any real impression. There was never any real sense, however, that Liverpool could save themselves and for it to happen they almost certainly needed Coutinho’s 25-yard effort to go in just before the interval. It came back off the post and, after that, it was just a question of how much more fun Madrid wanted to have.