If the knives weren’t already out for Brendan Rodgers before their Champions League trip to the Bernabeu, the decision to rest Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho had fans and media lining up to criticise the Liverpool manager before the game. As it turned out, a much-changed Liverpool side performed admirably in a 1-0 defeat to a Real Madrid team that had destroyed Rodgers’ first choice 11 last month. While the defeat in Spain now means Liverpool have to realistically secure victories in their two remaining group games against Ludogorets and Basel, Rodgers was somewhat justified in ringing seven changes.
When pushed on the decision to leave out so many key players, Rodgers insisted he was confident enough in his squad to hand the likes of Lazar Markovic, Javier Manquillo, Fabio Borini and Emre Can had what it takes to do the job. While some will claim the result was merely a stroke of luck for a manager who had effectively waved a white flag in order to focus on the next match, Rodgers is able to point to an impressive team performance that could have seen the visitors come away from the Spanish capital with a point.
While the hosts always looked in charge of the match, Real could only find their way past an in-form Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal once during the 90 minutes. After a string of superb saves, the Belgian keeper was finally beaten in the 27th minute by Karim Benzema but was unbeatable for the rest of the game. The likes of Ronaldo, Benzema, James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric had been tipped to go on and score a hat-full by many fans, but it wasn’t to be as a patched-up Liverpool backline managed to hold off the defending champions admirably and keep the away side in the game.
Liverpool’s forays into the Real half may have been fleeting but the Premier League side had more than a couple of opportunities to snatch a goal during the game. The introduction of Raheem Sterling in the second half certainly added an injection of attacking threat into the Liverpool team – posing the question as to just what could have been if the duo had started. Despite Real’s fearsome attacking unit peppering the Liverpool goal, Mignolet responded to criticism over his form with one of his most commanding performances since arriving at the club.
But while Real deserved their win, Liverpool fans will have every reason to feel as though this may have been a great chance to pick up a crucial away point in Spain despite playing almost a second –string team. While the result maintains the Spanish giants’ 100% record in this season’s Champions League, it leaves Liverpool still third on three points, three points behind Basel, who doubled their total to six points courtesy of a comfortable 4-0 win against Ludogorets.
Rodgers’ men will travel to Bulgaria to take on Ludogorets on November 26 before hosting Basel on December 9 in a game in which the winner will join group winners Real in the next round. After waiting so long to return to the Champions League, Rodgers will be under no illusions as to just how important their remaining two Group B games are to the club and his tenure as manager. While he may have gotten away with ringing the changes in Madrid, Liverpool fans will be expecting a full-strength team to be lining up in each of the club’s last matches. With so much on the line, Liverpool can’t afford any slip-ups against Ludogorets or Basel if they are going to make it past the opening stage of this year’s Champions League, and Rodgers definitely can’t afford to take any risks at this point of the season.