Liverpool avoided embarrassment at the Bernabeu, losing 1-0 to Real Madrid without their best players in the starting lineup. Madrid could have had more and were deserved winners, but nonetheless it was a respectable performance from the Reds that will hopefully inspire them ahead of a huge match against Chelsea this weekend.
It was known beforehand that Steven Gerrard would sit out, but many fans were surprised to see that Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, and Mario Balotelli were also rested by Brendan Rodgers. Fabio Borini played as the lone striker in a 4-1-2-3 formation with Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic deployed on either wing. Joe Allen and Emre Can sat in front of Lucas in the midfield, and the only real surprise at the back was that Kolo Toure started ahead of Dejan Lovren.
Borini, with his incisive movement more suited to a lone striker role than Balotelli, played a decent match although he was left isolated for much of the first half with Liverpool pinned back by Madrid. Lallana was well placed as an inverted wing forward, but like Borini he lacked sufficient service except for a nice entry ball from Alberto Moreno in the second half that Lallana nearly turned into an equalizer. Meanwhile, Markovic continued to look lost on the right wing.
The ragtag Liverpool midfield faced a daunting task in dealing with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in the center of pitch, but played well enough to give the back four some much needed cover. Can was the most impressive of the bunch as he took full advantage of his tank-like physical attributes, and his play may earn him a start against Chelsea.
Even the defense kept itself together for the most part. Toure's error in not covering Benzema on his goal wasn't too egregious and besides that he played pretty well. The same can be said about Martin Skrtel, who had one horrific giveaway early on and then settled in to put in a solid shift. Alberto Moreno was generally brilliant, and while Javier Manquillo struggled to account for Marcelo's overlapping runs he wasn't a total flop.
As was the case in the reverse fixture, Liverpool looked good enough in the first 20 minutes to give fans hope of a result. That's not to say that Madrid were the lesser side -- James Rodriguez came close to scoring in the 4th minute and a curled effort from Cristiano Ronaldo was barely denied by Simon Mignolet after a Martin Skrtel giveaway in the 10th minute -- but Liverpool saw a reasonable amount of possession and were able to slow the pace of the game.
It took a combination of brilliance from Marcelo and unawareness from Toure for Madrid to go ahead in the 27th minute. Marcelo whipped a cross from the left wing to the back post where Kareem Benzema had snuck behind Toure, and Benzema easily poked the ball into the net.
Liverpool didn't shatter after going behind, and showed great fortitude to resist Madrid as the hosts surged forward in search of a second goal before the half. To reach the interval only down by one was an accomplishment considering all of the players being rested, and the prospect of substitute reinforcements helping the cause in the second half allowed us to dream a little bit. However, there was also the underlying understanding that at any moment Madrid could flex their muscles and put the game to bed.
The further the match went on with the score at 1-0 the more believable an equalizer became. Lallana dragged a left-footed shot wide of the post and not long after Borini won a free kick right outside the box, warning Madrid that Liverpool were still very much in the game. On the other end, Madrid reminded Liverpool of their danger as substitute Gareth Bale crashed a shot into the crossbar in the 71st minute.
Liverpool's intentions were made even more clear when Markovic and Lucas made way for Sterling and Gerrard. Six minutes later Can was replaced by a more attack minded option in Coutinho. But despite the positive moves, Liverpool could not create that one big chance to send the energetic away section into delirium. Madrid were too stable defensively and too secure in possession for Liverpool to even sniff the goal in the game's waning moments, and so a valiant effort from the men in red sputtered out as the clock expired.
Rodgers set off a hot debate amongst fans with his lineup selection, but what's not in question is the effort of the players. A group of squad players visited one of the best teams in the world and were in the game until the final whistle. That's something to be proud of no matter how much this loss stings.