Was Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers right to rest star players?

By Phil McNultyChief football writer
Steven Gerrard and Brendan Rodgers
Captain Steven Gerrard was named on the bench for Liverpool's trip to Real Madrid

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers's contentious decision to field a weakened team in the Champions League defeat by Real Madrid will only be judged when phases two and three of his masterplan unfold.

In what many saw as a move that flew in the face of Liverpool's great history in this tournament, Rodgers rested A-listers such as Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling in favour of sending the undercard out at the Bernabeu.

The result was a 1-0 defeat by the Champions League holders, Liverpool's disappointment at being beaten almost balanced by the sheer relief of not being beaten out of sight.

As well as shaking up a Liverpool team that have performed so poorly this season, the move was made with both eyes firmly fixed on Saturday's Anfield meeting with Premier League leaders Chelsea and the bigger picture of qualification through winning their last two group games against Ludogorets and Basel.

So what were the pros and cons of the Rodgers selection?

Plucky Liverpool?

First and foremost, lest anyone forgets, Liverpool lost. Liverpool lost the one Champions League fixture that would have been red-ringed on their supporters' calendar the instant the draw was made.

This was the occasion that could be used as the evidence that Liverpool were back in Europe's elite. Instead it was lost meekly, with a team that realistically never stood a chance of beating Real Madrid.

Liverpool barely mustered a shot on goal, while goalkeeper Simon Mignolet - heavily criticised this season - was magnificent, Gareth Bale hit the bar and Cristiano Ronaldo had a rare night when his magic touch deserted him.

Rodgers 'not bothered' by critics

Real had 27 shots to Liverpool's four - nine on target to Liverpool's one.

It could have been much worse but this seemed to be the extent of Liverpool's ambition when the teams were picked: "We know we're going to lose but let's try not to get battered." Not something in keeping with the European status their fans hold so dear.external-link

Those supporters sang and cheered their night away high in the Bernabeu and did not react like they had been short-changed at the end - but surely this was not what they wanted or expected when the draw was made?

Rodgers's team worked hard, were organised and fought in the face of Real's greater quality. They were, in a word that counts as an insult to a club of their stature, plucky.

Liverpool are not Ludogorets, doughty minnows hoping to avoid embarrassment - and yet there was an undoubted tinge of that in the Bernabeu. Is that the Liverpool way, especially in a competition they believe is their rightful home?

Fair selection?

Liverpool were so poor at Newcastle United, and indeed for much of this season, that Rodgers can rightly point to the fact that others in his squad deserved a chance.

Of those left out, who could go banging on his door demanding an explanation?

Certainly not Glen Johnson, who has been very ordinary again this season, and not Dejan Lovren, who has looked anything but a £20m central defender since his move from Southampton.

Philippe Coutinho has not impressed this season and tends to impress even less on his travels. Mario Balotelli? Well…

Jordan Henderson has not been at his best post-World Cup so, realistically, only Gerrard and Sterling might make their case from a position of strength.

For Gerrard, in particular, it will have been hard to sit this one out. When he retired as England captain, this was the sort of Champions League night he had in mind - but not as a spectator for most of it.

Take the positives

Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet
Kolo Toure and goalkeeper Simon Mignolet impressed against Real Madrid

Yes, this phrase was used many times in the aftermath and there are positives to take. As has been stated, Liverpool were not humiliated but this cannot be counted as some moral victory.

Goalkeeper Mignolet, a model of indecision for much of this season, was outstanding while Kolo Toure, a once top-class player who has been portrayed as something of a comedy figure in his time at Liverpool, was magnificent.

If Toure is retained against Chelsea on the basis of what he did in Madrid, none of his rivals for a place could whistle up a complaint.

What might have been

Real Madrid were actually a few notches down on the side that performed so imperiously in their 3-0 win at Anfield, Ronaldo was short of his best, the passing and touches were occasionally sloppy, perhaps almost lulled into complacency by Liverpool's team selection.

Liverpool's November fixtures
8 Nov: Chelsea, Premier League (h)
23 Nov: Crystal Palace, Premier League (a)
26 Nov: Ludogorets Razgrad, Champions League (a)
29 Nov: Stoke, Premier League (h)

What if Rodgers had been bolder and selected Gerrard and Sterling from the start? Perhaps the pace of Sterling might have worried Real, fed by the raking, accurate passes into the channels from his captain.

It is a long stretch but fortune does favour the brave. This looked for all the world like damage limitation by Liverpool. Was this a missed opportunity?

Stroke of genius or tactical blunder?

Final judgement must be reserved. If Liverpool beat Chelsea and qualify for the next stage of the Champions League by winning their final two games, this team selection will be viewed in a different light.

Rodgers, however, is smart enough to know that if Liverpool lose to Chelsea and, perhaps even more significantly, fail to reach the knockout phase, this will be a black mark on his record.

He has staked all his chips on Chelsea and those two Champions League games - and the stakes are at their highest.


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