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Rodgers’ rigid tactics fail as Real rock Reds in Champions League

In the absence of sidelined Daniel Sturridge and subbed Mario Balotelli, following a half-time shirt swap debacle, Brendan Rodgers’ response to Liverpool being 3-0 down to Real Madrid was to put diminutive teenage attacker Raheem Sterling up front. His presence there did nothing to enhance the scoreline at Anfield.

The Reds remain odds-on at 4/6 to join Los Blancos in the knockout phase, but Coral are no longer giving a price on Carlo Ancelotti and the competition holders topping Group B. Real asserted themselves with a ruthless first half display, laying bare defensive woes on Merseyside to record their first-ever win over Liverpool.

For all his accolades and achievements, Cristiano Ronaldo had never scored at Anfield until his sublime finish, after a one-two with Madrid summer signing James Rodriguez, with the Colombian capture sporting a wound pad above his eyebrow. That magic moment midway through the first 45 belied a solid enough display from Rodgers’ back five, but familiar frailties soon followed.

A failure to clear Liverpool lines from a set piece on half an hour saw Real keep the heat on, and Toni Kroos found Karim Benzema at the back post to loop a header over Simon Mignolet. The France striker also profited from a howler from the Reds’ Belgian stopper, tapping in from a spilled corner. That was enough to put Madrid, who are 10/3 joint-favourites to retain the Champions League, out of sight.

Balotelli, meanwhile, continues to court controversy and endure onfield hardship, with a selfish shoot on sight policy. His half-time shirt swap with outstanding Real defender Pepe has provoked Kop ire about a lack of respect.

Rodgers hauled Balotelli off at the break for Adam Lallana, but insisted the jersey fiasco had nothing to do with his decision. “It was purely tactical,” he said. “I felt we needed a bit more movement centrally to occupy their centre halves a bit more and I thought Raheem Sterling would do that.”

Sterling did not. The closest Liverpool came was through Philippe Coutinho, who struck a post right before the interval. Mignolet, meanwhile, twice denied Ronaldo from adding a fourth goal, which would have taken him level with Madrid icon Raul as the Champions League’s all-time top scorer. Odds of 2/1 say he will be the leading marksman in this year’s version of this competition.

What this game cried out for was invoking the Istanbul spirit of the 2005 final, when Rafa Benitez abandoned his own tactical plan in similar circumstances. Rodgers had Rickie Lambert in reserve, but instead stuck rigidly to attractive approach play devoid of urgency against a dominant Real midfield pairing of Kroos and Luka Modric.

On instead came Lazar Markovic, whose short Anfield career so far leaves a lot to be desired with no goal from seven outings, and Emre Can to join Lallana, essentially meaning there were six midfielders on the pitch. This flooding tactic failed, whereas a more physical presence up against Pepe and Raphael Varane, who is becoming a real Rolls Royce of a defender, would’ve given them something to think about.

It is perhaps a little galling for Reds fans to realise that the holders handed out such a hiding without Gareth Bale in attack, and the visiting rearguard was so resolute despite the absence of Sergio Ramos. To a man, Madrid were magnificent, with Isco – once a reported target for both Rodgers and Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini who coached him at Malaga – catching the eye.

Given a rare run in the side because of Bale’s injury, Isco put in an all-action performance that proves he has plenty to offer at the Bernabeu or to suitors if he continues to play second fiddle when everyone is fit. A goal was missing from this display, but every other box – dynamism, tracking back, willingness to tackle – was ticked from a nominal left wing berth.

This was precisely the kind of purpose missing from Liverpool. End product from the hosts is no better emphasised than by the shots to those on target ratio. Rodgers’ Reds worked Iker Casillas, a keeper who has made a multitude of errors for club and country in recent months, just twice.

Liverpool host Hull City next, but the Tigers will be buoyed by a battling draw at Arsenal. Rodgers needs his defence, especially the centre back pairing of Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren, to tighten up, with a home win to nil priced at 8/5.