| 15.2°C Dublin

Damage limitation exercise is far from Boot Room way

Close

The finish of Karim Benzema at the far post from a sweeping Marcelo cross was all that separated the sides

The finish of Karim Benzema at the far post from a sweeping Marcelo cross was all that separated the sides

Getty Images

The finish of Karim Benzema at the far post from a sweeping Marcelo cross was all that separated the sides

Their banners announced them as "European Royalty", but Liverpool sent the commoners out to deal with Real Madrid. A team selection that risked chucking the club's birthright away produced instead a show of defiance that proved Brendan Rodgers' team can defend as well as attack.

Rodgers will never take a bigger gamble in his Anfield career. As Raheem Sterling, Steven Gerrard, Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson and Mario Balotelli stared from the bench, Real's guests were more Levante than Liverpool - massed behind the ball and venturing out only to counter-attack.

Weirdly, it was plain from the start that anything better than the 3-0 defeat at Anfield would lift Rodgers off the hook. An odd way to see it, this, because no Liverpool team can be content with just keeping the score down home and away in Europe, no matter how illustrious the opponents.

Ostensibly Rodgers calculated that Liverpool were already engaged in three-way fight for second place in Group B and needed to concentrate on Saturday's visit by Chelsea, their 2013-14 title race nemeses.

The justifications were all carefully prepared beforehand.

Level

"We're certainly not forfeiting this game," Rodgers said. "We've got nine full internationals playing. Our form this season has been nowhere near our level we've set over 18 months, so it's probably hard to pick what would be our best team."

In other words, there are no automatic choices now Liverpool have started the season so disappointingly. More likely is that Rodgers just wants his revenge on Chelsea and Jose Mourinho and backed himself to draw a sound defensive display from the fringe members of his squad.

The flaw in Liverpool's logic was that Saturday's lunchtime kick-off is not the pivotal fixture it was last April, when Rodgers' men were chasing a first league title for 24 years, only for Mourinho's tactical masterclass and Gerrard's slip to mark the symbolic demise of a great and entertaining quest.

This weekend's rematch is another matter: a mere three-pointer by comparison. A big game, certainly, but not one that seemed to justify the warping of the first XI for Liverpool's grandest assignment of this campaign.

Like all Liverpool managers since the Boot Room era, Rodgers has studied Anfield history, tried to know the fans and understand the club's traditions. That research will have shown him that Liverpool pretty much define themselves by the European Cup, which they have won half as many times as Real Madrid (five v 10).

The 1970s and '80s were the club's golden era. Istanbul, in 2005, was the flight of the phoenix - Liverpool's soaring return to the elite.

"We've won it five times," has become the Kop's fall-back anthem. Every European fixture reaffirms the club's stature on the continent. This religion is not to be tampered with.

One last objection was that morale was hardly likely to be improved by denying Henderson, Sterling, Coutinho and Gerrard the chance to start at the Bernabeu.

You can bet your life they resented the team selection, however loyal they are. Top of the list of anomalies was England's best young player, Sterling, watching from the bench in this most glamorous of arenas until 22 minutes from the end.

Plainly Rodgers cannot pick his teams to give people nice experiences. Right or wrong, he placed club strategy ahead of individual glory.

He forgot, though, that pride is a vital component in a top player's make-up.

A Liverpool first-choice XI who went down fighting in Madrid would have given Chelsea far more to fear than one that mostly watched a prestigious Champions League fixture from the bench.

In life, these chances come along rarely.

Those nine internationals went about their business well, drifting, screening and trying to compress the space.

An accusation aimed at Liverpool is that they play only one way - sweeping forward, tooting their horns - and cannot adapt to circumstances.

Well, here was the squad's second string showing they could be realistic, tight, play on the break and stand up to more famous opponents.

Inclusion

Kole Toure, whose inclusion had many wince, was thoroughly undaunted. He tackled, blocked and played the ball out sweetly. At left-back Alberto Moreno was tenacious and pacy.

Liverpool's biggest problem was when the ball reached Lazar Markovic on the right and Fabio Borini up front. Markovic seemed incapable of mastering the ball and Borini ran into a pair of mighty centre-backs in Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.

A 1-0 deficit at the interval raised the intriguing prospect of Liverpool leaving the home of Europe's champions less scarred than they had Anfield, where they were blown away in the first half.

Rodgers stood resolutely in his coaching zone, in a dark suit, no doubt praying he would escape the charge of running up the white flag on club football's most hallowed turf.

The finish of Karim Benzema at the far post from a sweeping Marcelo cross was all that separated the sides. Liverpool's fans, with their emotive banners, recovered their spirits and their voice. Never mind that their shadow-heroes posed almost no goal threat. They were still in the game, unvanquished and unembarrassed.

There was no landslide of goals and no shame for Liverpool. By the end, Gerrard, Coutinho and Sterling were all on the pitch as Real flailed and flapped. Rodgers could claim vindication of sorts. But Anfield will not feel happy again until Liverpool can send a first XI here with the aim of winning. Deference and damage limitation does not suit them. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent