Carlo Ancelotti was pictured touching the famous ‘This Is Anfield’ sign in the tunnel the day before Liverpool hosted Real Madrid two weeks ago, saying how much of an honour it was to bring his galacticos to such an iconic European stage.
The ruthless ease with which Karim Benzema’s brace and Luka Modric’s passing saw off their opponents the following day must have rankled with the Anfield hierarchy and support.
That sign was to Liverpool what the pinstripes were to the New York Yankees – a symbol of the terrifying aura that engulfed visiting sides and mentally beat them into submission before they had stepped foot onto the pitch itself – but here was a side beaten 4-0 on aggregate only six seasons ago trampling over them as if it were their own home ground.
Skip forward to the return match in the Bernabeu, and Brendan Rodgers’ team selection had been leaked with commentators rushing forth to condemn his disregard for the integrity of a competition at the heart of Liverpool’s history as he rested six players, including modern legend Steven Gerrard.
With the impending clash with Chelsea looming large on the horizon, common consensus had it that these first choice players were being rested as Rodgers had no expectation of a result and was therefore prioritising the Premier League over the Champions League.
Summer signings Lazar Markovic and Emre Can made rare starts, as did old stalwarts Lucas Leiva and Kolo Touré, while the resurgent Jordan Henderson looked on from the sidelines.
The groundswell of opinion over the last few days has made out that it was a flippant disregard for the tradition of the club and towards the visiting support by sending out a ‘second string’ side.
Against Newcastle last weekend, however, those supposed first choice starters performed atrociously, putting on an insipid display devoid of creativity and character.
Mario Balotelli is running out of goodwill fast as his lack of cutting edge is falling short of filling the gap left by the departed Luis Suarez and injured Daniel Sturridge, so why should Rodgers thrust him into one of the most unforgiving of environments and hope his attitude would magically transform?
The same media sources that have been justifiably criticising Balotelli’s lacklustre impact on Liverpool’s style turned against Rodgers for dropping him.
Steven Gerrard’s omission is perhaps a touch more controversial. It took some guts to leave out Mr. Liverpool FC, especially when he could have been utilised effectively in a deep-lying Xabi Alonso role dictating play from deep.
With younger legs in Toni Kroos and Luka Modric forming the formidable double ‘pivot’ for Real, it would have made no sense to ask Gerrard to run himself into the ground in what used to be his trademark style.
However, even he has admitted he might not stay beyond this season, and after some limp displays this autumn many Liverpool fans have been questioning his permanent place, at least in a more advanced role.
So when you have the uncomplicated but tireless work rate of Joe Allen and Lucas, especially in a game where extra protection was needed to help track the runs of Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodríguez, you have a ready-made screen to protect the defence.
Kolo Touré was certainly a risky choice partnering Martin Skrtel given he has not had a great deal of playing time over the last 12 months, and what little Anfield has seen of him has not filled them with confidence.
What his manager saw in him was an experienced head who would be unfazed by the occasion; Dejan Lovren has not formed the watertight partnership that was expected of him, and for a one-off game his individual qualities counted in the Ivorian’s favour
As it turned out, it was an inspired choice, as the aged former Arsenal centre back kept the stars of Madrid quiet, although the questionable memes showing Ronaldo in his pocket may have exaggerated his effect a touch.
When Emre Can arrived for a modest £10 million in the summer, he was quickly earmarked as a potential successor to Gerrard with his robust frame and energy. These qualities were essential to offer an outlet to the endless clearances that any side facing Real are likely to have to make.
He was never planned to cement a starting place yet, and while the former German under-21 international has not sparked his Anfield career yet, it is a trademark of his new boss to test the mental character of his players. Again, of course it was a risk, but again, it was one made with thought out into it.
Raheem Sterling has suddenly been thrust centre stage as creator in chief after Suárez left and Sturridge picked up a calf strain, and on top of that he had to suffer the ridiculous media storm about his decision to let his international manager know he was tired.
He is having to learn fast about becoming not just an exciting prospect but a man on whom teams are moulded, and Rodgers has extensive experience in dealing with him effectively.
On his first pre-season tour after succeeding Kenny Dalglish two years ago, the former José Mourinho understudy famously laid into the teenager for an off-the-cuff remark about training, but coaxed him into the first team and brought out the best in him while not overloading the demands placed on the then 17-year-old’s shoulders.
Taking the pressure off him in a game like this was a sensible move; of course he will not rest him for every big game, but sometimes a judgement call has to be made, and if anyone is in a position to make that, it is Rodgers.
With Adam Lallana and Markovic on the flanks, there could have been no complaints about a lack of potential creativity in Liverpool’s side – when you spend over £40 million on two wide players, it is, as Rodgers said, “doing them a disservice” to label them as reserves.
Fabio Borini has been spent more of his career out on loan than at his parent clubs, but his determination at Sunderland last season means he deserves the chance to push his claims.
Benzema is far from a complete number nine, but he does the simple things well, is unselfish (would you hog the ball with Ronaldo breathing down your neck?) and is a fabulous finisher, so earns his place at the point of Real’s attack.
Borini possesses some of those traits, and whether he genuinely believes he has a chance of fighting for his starting place or wants to put himself in the shop window, he has a point to prove, which is something Rodgers recognised.
The common thread with most of the replacements brought in for the narrow 1-0 defeat is the hunger to prove themselves. This is something that has been lacking in Liverpool’s recent form, and shaking up the settled established order is exactly what was needed.
It is a crying shame that a valiant attempt to reverse a relatively short run of poor form with a calculated gamble was lambasted so vehemently, especially when it so nearly paid off.
After the poor reigns of Dalglish and Hodgson, Liverpool fans should be grateful they have a bold, imaginative coach of the highest calibre with first-rate man-management skills, and the rest of the media ought to open their eyes.