A tale of two strikers, both of whom have been under intense scrutiny, summed up the difference in quality between the two teams in Wednesday’s clash at Anfield
By Paul Macdonald at Anfield
Real Madrid had scored 32 times in their last seven matches before arriving at Anfield. By any standard of opposition (and the La Liga naysayers will no doubt chime in) that is astonishing. And all the murals, flags, spellbinding chants and good intentions can’t hide the grand canyon in class that exists between Liverpool and the European elite.
Madrid landed on Merseyside amid references to history, of how they’d never beaten Liverpool, of how Ronaldo never plays well at Anfield and how they’d be intimidated by the atmosphere. They leave having obliterated all of those irrelevances in emphatic fashion and leave Brendan Rodgers with a very clear indication of where his side belong at the moment – and it’s nowhere near this company.
Rodgers has always spoken of his three-year plan and the importance placed on building first a Premier League force, then subsequently a European one. Has last season’s heroic failure to Manchester City – a season which amplified collective intrigue and fascination over a team that weren’t close to the finished article – been ultimately detrimental to the manager’s long-term vision?
They’ve been thrown into a match they weren’t ready for, against a team so clearly superior it requires little analysis, with a gruelling schedule and a squad filled with new arrivals. It was unlikely to end in any way other than Ronaldo shimmying past Martin Skrtel, tripping over his feet, and yet still able to best the Slovak and cross into the area. The gulf in class exists right there in microcosm, but there were examples all across the pitch.
Perhaps the most obvious exists in attack. Mario Balotelli has been told by all around him for much of his career that he is a talented footballer. He believes it wholeheartedly but seems unwilling to act upon it. Such a prophecy can only come true with empirical evidence; examples of Balotelli’s excellence extend further into the memory with each passing day. He was hooked at half-time and right now, there is no other term for him; an unaffordable liability. Steven Gerrard alluded pre-match to Liverpool being unable to carry any passengers in order to succeed. The person that message was aimed at is clear – the sentiment didn’t register.
He should take a leaf from Karim Benzema’s book. A Galactico? Not quite, but he has worked hard to ensure he remains an integral part of this side. Even through spells of criticism and lack of goals, he remains fully committed, and regularly involved. Benzema was everything that Balotelli isn’t, and his team-mates appreciate him all the more.
Rodgers will have been wary of what his side could have been in for (and what ultimately came to pass) but he remains more than a little naïve. At times it feels like he must conform at all times with the style of football Liverpool are expected to play, particularly at home. Perhaps with more tactical nous and a strength of will to avoid collapsing helplessly into Madrid’s hands, he could have frustrated them and, at the very least, gave us a more respectable outcome. Solid organisation and discipline have shut out Real Madrid before, and will again – if you choose to set up in such a fashion.
But with all that being said, what is a team in transition and without any resemblance of form meant to do against players of this quality? This week has once again highlighted that the big are getting bigger and for all the Premier League’s competitiveness and its commercial viability, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are galloping relentlessly into the distance. In five years we have travelled from Liverpool winning 4-0 here against Real Madrid, to so far in the opposite direction the match was largely a procession. England’s domestic game projects as being among the healthiest around – is it really?
Rodgers needs to regroup and re-evaluate his side’s goals for the season. He must temper the ambitions of a fanbase – which may well be easier now. The home support applauded Ronaldo from the field and stayed to give the visitors a thoroughly respectful ovation. They may well have suffered a reality check here, and that will work in Rodgers’ favour.
And, of course, he must deal with the problem of Mario. But he can forget Europe for now, because this simply wasn’t a contest.