Saturday 14 December 2019

Liverpool's clash with Real Madrid could be defining moment for Brendan Rodgers

Henry Winter

Brendan Rodgers hopes that Liverpool’s daunting date with Real Madrid will prove a “defining game” for him, perhaps even providing an adrenalin shot for players unconvincing so far this season. It could also be a very painful, chastening evening.

Very aware of Liverpool’s European Cup history, the highly ambitious Rodgers readily accepts the challenge of facing Real and the spotlight on his abilities. “For a manager you’re always under scrutiny at a big club,’’ said Rodgers.

“Every single game at this level is massive when you’re Liverpool manager. You’re expected to win every single game - even Real Madrid - because of the level we’ve been at [historically]. For me, I’m relaxed about the pressure. I enjoy my life at Liverpool, being tasked with restoring the club to the great levels it’s been at before. I think we’ve made great strides.

“I know we need to improve. There’s nobody thinking about that more than me and preparing the team more than me. I need to find the solutions. If it’s a defining game for me then great. Whatever the result I’ll be focused and hungry to go into the next game. Hopefully we can get a big result and improve.”

If Liverpool somehow get a point, somehow resisting the irrepressible Cristiano Ronaldo, then it will be seen as a defining game for Rodgers, a breakthrough result and signature moment. If Liverpool lose, it cannot be perceived as a defining game for Rodgers with long-term negative ramifications as few expect his team to emerge unscathed. Depending on the scoreline, and the performance, it could harm him only in the short term. Liverpool are in good hands but they could still get scalded here.

The scrutiny is already on his game plan and choice of personnel. Rodgers admitted he was considering omitting Steven Gerrard, a move made with only short-term reasons in mind, namely keeping him fresh for Saturday’s scrap with Chelsea. That Anfield fixture carries a particular resonance for Gerrard, not simply because he briefly flirted with joining them and is an admirer of Jose Mourinho, but also because of his loss of footing that led to Demba Ba’s goal last season, the slip that launched a thousand quips. Gerrard has unfinished business with Chelsea. He will be fired up for that game.

Leaving Liverpool’s long-term talisman out of the starting team at the home of the European champions would still be a hugely controversial call by Rodgers, dismaying fans who have journeyed out here, and adding tension to forthcoming contract negotiations. Benching Gerrard for Liverpool’s most prestigious and challenging game of the season could change the dynamic between manager and captain.

The assessment of Rodgers will also stem from how some of his new signings fare. Dejan Lovren and Mario Balotelli, among others, have yet to convince. Liverpool’s team-sheet will be seized upon with even more interest than usual. So will the shape of the team, and the game plan.

Rodgers will ask his players to press and press, rediscovering the intensity that worked in the Premier League last season, yet such a strategy risks Liverpool being caught forward, being vulnerable to counter-attacks if Real elude the visiting press-gangs.

At a baying Bernabéu, Ronaldo and Gareth Bale can cause mayhem on the counter, especially if Rodgers’ full-backs push up high. For a visiting manager, the Bernabéu is no place to go with romantic intent. It is a night for pragmatism, for being compact, not overly expansive.

As he stood in the Bernabéu yesterday evening, staring up at the steepling terraces, the scale of the task found echo in Rodgers’ voice. He mixed some circumspection in with his upbeat rhetoric. Wearing his club tracksuit, Rodgers looked incredibly young, a reminder that he is still learning his trade, that he is still only 41. Whatever happens when Ronaldo joins forces with a compliant ball will simply add to Rodgers’ education.

He knows what he wants to tell the players before they leave the dressing room. “You have to have the belief and courage for the big games like this. We have to disrupt their game as well. We can’t only show our football qualities, we have to be ready to fight and do our best.’’

He appreciates Madrid’s threat, especially in breaking out. “They have all facets to their game,’’ continued Rodgers. “They have the quality to play through you and that speed which is incredible on the counter-attack. You have to ensure your team is super-compact, your lines are close together. When you go forward, you go forward in the correct numbers and you can’t leave yourself naively open on the counter-attack because you have Benzema and Ronaldo who stay up.’

James Rodríguez and Bale will be poised too. “So very quickly you’re going to have four players against your back four or three. At times in the last game [the 3-0 loss at Anfield] we dealt very well with it. We also see the quality they have. We have to go into the game with big belief and confidence that we can compete.”

These are challenging times for Rodgers, not simply this week with its eight days of Newcastle United, Real Madrid and Chelsea, but this season.

Liverpool lack the urgency of last season, lack the departed Luis Suárez, lack the injured Daniel Sturridge, yet Rodgers’ mastering of management will inevitably be assisted by such examinations of his capabilities. Liverpool need more time to grow under him. He also needs time to grow.

Rodgers dismissed the notion that he and Liverpool had “nothing to lose” against the champions of Europe. “There’s everything to lose,’’ said Rodgers. “We go into it focused and concentrating to get something from the game. We certainly respect it is a difficult task. After they lost here to Atletico Madrid [on Sept 13], they have gone on to win 12 [11] games on the spin.” They scored 46 goals, including an astonishing 18 from Ronaldo, and conceded only seven.

“We recognise it’s a difficult ask,’’ Rodgers added. “But you come here as a football player and it’s a wonderful arena, you want to show your qualities, your courage and your character as a team. We want to do that here. When you ask your players to give their best, and they give their best, then win, lose or draw I’m always proud of the team.

“Over my time here I’ve been so proud of my players and we are on the next curve of our development and it started slower than I would have hoped. But these are games that provide great opportunity. You go into a game like this here and you get a positive performance and result then it can kick you on and move you into the weekend’s game with a great deal of confidence.”

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