Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema lead Real Madrid's charge past Liverpool

BY Jonathan Wilson • October 22, 2014

LIVERPOOL --

Liverpool may yet qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League – something made easier by Basel’s late loss away to Ludgorets - but this was a chastening night for Brendan Rodgers’s side. Anfield may still be able to conjure a first-class atmosphere, but of European teams, Liverpool remain some distance off the elite.

Cristiano Ronaldo scored a majestic goal and Karim Benzema showed all his poaching instincts to capitalize on some dismal defending as Liverpool was undone by a combination of its own sloppiness and the attacking prowess of the European champions.

Yet for the home side, it had all begun so well. Real Madrid emerged unscathed from an early flurry that never quite turned energy and intent into chances and, as soon as it was presented with an opportunity, it struck.

Or rather, Ronaldo struck.

There were those who wondered whether he would ever get his explosive pace back after his knee problems in the summer, but he looks as good, if not better, than ever. It’s hard to believe there has ever been a footballer that has worked so single-mindedly on extracting the maximum from his talent. Every inch of him is a precision footballing machine – one that was broadly appreciated by Anfield, even in defeat: As he was substituted with 15 minutes remaining there were some boos, but far more of the crowd applauded him off.

The opening goal, after 23 minutes, was brilliant both in conception and execution, but Liverpool, yet again, contributed to their own downfall. As Ronaldo exchanged passes with Benzema, neither Steven Gerrard nor Jordan Henderson got tight enough, allowing the ball to be worked right to James Rodriguez. He dinked the ball through and Ronaldo held off Martin Skrtel to hook a magnificent finish across Simon Mignolet and inside the post. It was, astonishingly, the first goal Real Madrid had ever scored against Liverpool, 33 years after the sides first met, and it was also the twelfth successive game in which Ronaldo had scored.

Seven minutes later it was two. A corner was only partially cleared and the ball was worked back to Toni Kroos on the left. He crossed to the back post where Karim Benzema sent a looping header over Mignolet. Set plays have been a problem for Liverpool all season and Real Madrid’s third also came form a corner, Pepe poking the ball past Mignolet for Benzema to knock in.

Real Madrid was ruthless, but Liverpool’s defending was shambolic, undermining much that had been positive about its display until the first goal went in. The difference from Sunday’s limp display in the 3-2 win over Queen’s Park Rangers was remarkable. The diamond midfield was restored, Philippe Coutinho playing at its tip with Raheem Sterling operating alongside Mario Balotelli up front. There was zip and vigour and the sort of ferocious drive that made Liverpool, on song, such a formidable force last season.

There was also, though, Mario Balotelli. It’s been open season on the Italy forward recently, and some of the criticism has been unjustified. When Brendan Rodgers noted after the QPR game that people had to stop expecting him to be Luis Suarez, his point was sound. They are different players, and there is more to Liverpool’s stuttering start to this season than simply one man.

Yet comparisons are inevitable. Balotelli – as yet - simply doesn’t fit the Liverpool style. He had already run into traffic once when, in the second minute, Marcelo was caught in possession. The ball came to Balotelli, who had Sterling to his left. Who did not, at that point, think back to last season and the way Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Sterling would bear down on opponents with terrifying pace? Balotelli, though, seemed to struggle to get going, chugging forwards as though dragging a tyre behind him and allowing Marcelo to get back to win the ball back. There followed the full gamut of passes to nobody, shrugs and hands wafted in frustration before he was substituted at half-time – having swapped shirts with Pepe.

Coutinho did strike the post with a swerving drive just before half-time, but then Ronaldo as twice denied by Mignolet in quick succession midway through the second half.  Liverpool did muster a couple of decent chances and it had spells of promising possession, but it lacked the cutting edge to take advantage while its defence remains a liability. Questions remains about Real’s defending against the very best, but going forward it remains an awesome force.


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