You have to wonder if, somewhere along the line, that infamous team selection against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu – the decision to drop Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Glen Johnson, Mario Balotelli and Dejan Lovren – comes back to haunt Brendan Rodgers.
Without context, in the vacuum of a single fixture, the Liverpool boss didn’t really do a lot wrong. After all, previously, Los Blancos had recorded eleven straight wins, including a 3-0 thumping at Anfield and a 3-1 victory over Barcelona, whilst the Reds’ had won just four in eleven, three of which, against Ludogorets, Swansea and QPR, had come via stoppage-time winners.
So the decision to rest Liverpool’s faltering stars for the more industrial members of the squad, such as Adam Lallana, Lucas Leiva, Joe Allen, Emre Can and Fabio Borini, to prevent an embarrassment similar to the one on Merseyside just a fortnight earlier is certainly understandable – more on that later.
Yet, when combined with Liverpool’s poor start to the season – a defeat to Chelsea last weekend seeing them drop to eleventh in the Premier League table – and recent criticisms over Rodgers’ spending strategy, with little above-ordinary to show for the £212million transfer outlay since he became Anfield boss in 2012, the controversial Bernabeu line-up forms another piece of kindling on the edge of a simmering fire.
Not to suggest Liverpool fans are currently over-miffed about it. Not to suggest Brendan Rodgers is about to lose his job because of it. But like an argument with a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, it’s the kind of issue that gets thrown up in spite, all-the-more distorted by time and events since. “Yeah, and remember how he set us up to lose against Real Madrid?” you can imagine a typically militant Reds supporter muttering at Anfield if Liverpool’s poor run continues much longer.
Perhaps that hypothetical fan has a point – although no manager actively puts out teams to lose, Rodgers hardly set the Reds up to win either. They could’ve played Real Madrid for a fortnight and probably wouldn’t have got past Iker Casillas, barring an unforced error – they simply didn’t have enough quality on the pitch to hurt the European Champions.
That being said, you have to admire Brendan Rodgers’ bravery in his commitment to pragmatism over Liverpudlian nostalgia.
After all, that probably constituted Steven Gerrard’s last chance to play on the immaculate Bernabeu pitch before retiring, and based on Liverpool’s current league form, that could be their last truly memorable Champions League fixture against star-studded opposition for at least another season. The fans and the Reds’ captain fantastic would’ve undoubtedly preferred to have gone out with a bang rather than a tacit surrender, and Rodgers must have known there would be a media-backlash as soon as the teams were announced; virtually the entirety of British punditry is formed by hot-headed, trophy-laden former Reds.
But Liverpool’s continuation in the Champions League was never dependent upon recording underdog wins against the La Liga giants, especially away from home. Group B opponents Basel and Ludogrets should hardly be obstacles for a club that came second in the Premier League last season; that’s where the Reds’ European campaign will be lost and won.
Some common ground could’ve been found between the ‘B team’ that faced Real and the Liverpool side that lost to Newcastle United the weekend previous. Jordan Henderson for example, through his work-rate and determination, is the perfect midfielder for a gritty, backs-against-the-wall performance. Likewise, £20million signing Lazar Markovic offered nothing Raheem Sterling couldn’t on the right-hand side and Mario Balotelli, for all his indiscretions this season, is the kind of player that comes alive when he knows the world is watching.
But why should Rodgers have fielded his regular stars? Why should Steven Gerrard be undropable? None are performing anywhere near the levels of last season and the absence of Luis Suarez has become a tedious excuse for Liverpool’s form. Yes, he gave the Reds cutting edge and world-class industry, but that amplified Liverpool’s ethos last season, not constituted it entirely.
Therefore, why not give Lallana, Kolo Toure, Can et al their chance? They’ve been waiting all season to have an impact whilst the established stars have faltered and absolutely none of them, not even Fabio Borini, who was effectively told to leave Merseyside during the summer, let Rodgers down. The Liverpool boss spent a club-record sum during the off-season specifically to expand the depth available to him, so why not utilise it in a tournament and fixture nobody expected Liverpool to win?
There were more important things to think about than the whimsical notion of Liverpool performing beyond their means, without key striker Daniel Sturridge and amid a patch of stale form, to record a historic victory against Real Madrid. The odds of that happening, according to the bookies pre-kick-off, were 10/1.
A win against Chelsea in the subsequent fixture would’ve had a far greater impact on Liverpool’s season. It seems almost nobody will claim more than a point off the league leaders this season – doing so is attaining points that the divisional rivals won’t. Furthermore, although the Reds lost 2-1, they at least entered the Anfield clash with the right attitude; some players filled with confidence from the Bernabeu performance, others with a point to prove after being left out.
There aren’t too many clubs in world football with unique pressures like Liverpool’s. It’s far from the powerhouse of the 1980s, or for that matter, the early 2000s, yet through prestige and reputation alone, fans, pundits and neutrals alike expect the Reds to still be competitive against the biggest teams in Europe.
Rodgers ruled that essentially impossible against what is probably the best team in world football and with that in mind, created other positives to take out of it. What could have the Merseysiders taken out of another 3-0 defeat, for example?
With the backlash inevitable and one that will potentially repeat on Rodgers, you have to admire his bravery.