On the long-awaited return of big European nights to Anfield, Real Madrid supplied a powerful demonstration of how far Liverpool remain from Europe’s very elite with a convincing 3-0 victory. Against the club that provided the opposition the last time Liverpool scored a major European win on home soil, with an emphatic 4-0 victory in 2009, the roles were dramatically reversed as the competition holders raced into a 3-0 halftime lead that aptly reflected the gulf in a quality, courtesy of a brilliant opener by Cristiano Ronaldo and a brace by Karim Benzema.
After five years without the sort of evenings that sees Anfield truly come into its own, those in the stands produced a thunderous early atmosphere. And their team responded by setting a blistering early tempo that certainly had the Spanish visitors a little rattled. But once the frenetic pace died down, Madrid’s class took over. Ronaldo’s half-volley from James Rodriguez’s lifted pass was brilliant and allowed Madrid to stroke the ball around with Liverpool mere spectators for the rest of the period.
While Liverpool simply can’t hope to match that top-level quality right now, manager Brendan Rodgers will be bitterly disappointed that the game was effectively ended as a contest by continued basic defending deficiencies. From two Toni Kroos deliveries into the area, Liverpool were found wanting to allow Benzema to make it four Champions League goals in three appearances this season. While Raheem Sterling had his moments and Philippe Coutinho struck the post right before halftime, Liverpool had no way back. The withdrawal of Mario Balotelli at the interval will only increase the scrutiny on the Italian, but, while he did little, this result was about a lot more than just one man.
Indeed, the result might have been even more emphatic if Real Madrid hadn’t have taken their foot off the gas in the second half as they looked ahead to Saturday’s Clasico against Barcelona. Madrid will likely encounter Luis Suarez making his Barcelona debut at the Bernabeu, and how much Liverpool could have done with the man who did so much to secure their return to the Champions League on Wednesday.
Rather than kicking on, the loss of Suarez has contributed heavily to Liverpool regressing so far this season. Already with three defeats in the Premier League, the blow of a second defeat in three Champions League games was at least softened by Basel losing to Ludogorets to leave the three teams level on points behind runaway leaders Madrid.
Despite those troubles, Anfield was in full voice and full of optimism at kickoff. And the pace of the lively Sterling exposed some of the defensive fragility that may prevent Real Madrid from becoming the first team in the Champions League era to retain the European Cup. But stopping their incredible array of attacking talent remains an ominous task for even the best defenses, never mind one currently struggling to the degree of Liverpool’s.
Even without the injured Gareth Bale, Madrid looked imperious on occasion. Indeed, the performance of Bale’s replacement Isco only illustrated their amazing strength in depth in attacking areas. Once Liverpool’s early pace faded they were sorely outclassed for a 20 minute period before halftime. It all started with Rodriguez’s pass over Dejan Lovren and the sweetest of finishes by Ronaldo. It was the first goal the one-time Manchester United star had scored at the home of his former club’s great rivals his 70th in the Champions League. Aged 29 he is in the form of his life and, despite his allegiances to England’s other greatest power and an otherwise frustrating night that saw him miss two fine chances in the second half, he received a standing ovation from the Liverpool fans when he was later withdrawn.
Toni Kroos was afforded similar admirable respect from the Anfield crowd after playing such a prominent part in passing the ball around Liverpool and laying on goals two and three. On the half-hour mark, with no Liverpool player closing him down, the World Cup winner picked out Benzema at the far post and the French striker looped a fine header into the far corner of the net. The Liverpool defending was more explicitly at fault six minutes later. Kroos’ corner struck the chest of Pepe and, with those in red offering little reaction, the defender was allowed to stretch and turn the ball across the face of goal ahead of Mignolet to leave Benzema with a simple finish.
Liverpool started the second half brightly, but Real Madrid again saw off the early flurry. The remaining minutes were played out in comfort, always with the feeling that if any team was to add to the scoring it would be the 10-times champions.