Brendan Rodgers stood by his selection gamble as predictions of a rout proved to be well wide the mark after Liverpool’s weakened side produced a disciplined if not ultimately successful performance at the Bernabeu.
Rodgers’ gamble of leaving captain Steven Gerrard, vice-skipper Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling, among others, on the bench ahaed of saturday’s Premier League clash with leaders Chelsea was considered bold by some and foolish by others. The manager received criticism prior to kick-off for his selection, but he said on ITV: “I knew what I was doing.
“You’ve seen how good they (the Liverpool players) were tonight. We’re obviously disappointed with the result because the bottom line is we lost but, to come to a stadium like this where they’re winning threes and fours against teams like Barcelona and to keep the game close right to the very end, showed the quality of our performance.”
Liverpool sit third in Group B but will qualify for the knockout stages if they beat Ludogorets and Basle in their next two games.
“There’s every chance,” said Rodgers.
“We knew we’d have to beat Ludogorets away and then we were hoping it would come down to the last game against Basle at home.
“That hopefully will be the case. It’s in our hands and that’s something we’ll aim to do.”
Saturday’s match now becomes a must-win one otherwise the Reds boss will expose himself to even more criticism but, in terms of last night, his second-string can probably claim a moral victory, having kept the damage below what the first-choice side did in the previous meeting with Karim Benzema’s 26th-minute strike decisive.
Considering the stage of his career, it is unlikely Gerrard will get another chance to grace this impressive ground again. If he was frustrated at his inaction, he did not show it, but former England team-mate Paul Scholes felt Rodgers had made an error.
“He could play both games and then have two weeks off,” he told ITV, referring to the forthcoming Euro 2016 qualifiers. “That’s why he has retired from international football and these are the games you want to play in. He won’t be happy about this.”
From the off it took on the guise of attack versus defence but, to be fair, Liverpool handled it quite well with Simon Mignolet denying James Rodriguez and Cristiano Ronaldo inside 10 minutes.
The team’s compact structure was clear to see but, just like a fortnight ago at Anfield, the wind was taken out of their sails midway through the half when Isco picked out Marcelo in space on the left and he curled a low cross to the far post where Benzema got behind Kolo Toure to slide home.
Toure almost embarrassed himself and Mignolet, who did well to bat away a swerving Ronaldo free-kick.
After the break the white tide eased slightly and Liverpool were offered the odd half-chance, with Adam Lallana firing across Iker Casillas and wide of the far post after Alberto Moreno’s through-ball, and Emre Can seeing a free-kick deflected behind.
Gerrard and Sterling were sent on with 20 minutes to go but it was Real’s substitute Gareth Bale who made the most impact, shooting against the crossbar and then forcing Mignolet to punch away a free-kick.
But by that time Liverpool were comfortable in their surroundings and they did not crumble, as many had expected.
REAL MADRID: Casillas, Arbeloa (Nacho 83), Varane, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Rodriguez (Bale 62), Modric, Kroos, Isco, Benzema (Hernandez 87), Ronaldo.
LIVERPOOL: Mignolet, Moreno, Toure, Skrtel, Manquillo, Can (Coutinho 75), Lucas (Gerrard 69), Lallana, Allen, Markovic (Sterling 69), Borini.
Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary).