Liverpool's slide is becoming a slump.
The little failings that have compromised their season were magnified in front of the world yesterday morning (Singapore time) as Real Madrid dished out a lesson in what it takes to prosper at this level. Worse, the Mario Balotelli gamble is showing no signs of paying out; on or off the field. Balotelli is in wretched form and has scored just a single goal in 10 appearances.
And the theory that he might rouse himself for the visit of the European champions lies in tatters. He was every bit as appalling as he was against Queens Park Rangers last Sunday. Almost everything he tried went wrong and one statistics website published a heatmap that showed he was at his most active on the centre-spot, taking kick-offs after every Real Madrid goal.
His uselessness was one thing, but his decision to approach Pepe and exchange shirts with him at half-time has caused him even more problems. It may be the case that there are nations where you can collect souvenirs during the game without reprisals, but England is not one of them. In the UK, the act is placed somewhere between open treason and a lack of desire, both of which are capital offences.
Manager Brendan Rodgers said that he did not see the incident and that it was not the reason he hauled the Italian off at the break, but he was entirely unimpressed.
"It is not something I stand for," he growled. "If you want to do that, do it at the end of the game. It is something I will deal with."
Liverpool have been here before, last year when Mamadou Sakho tried to swop shirts at half-time with Samuel Eto'o. Rodgers dealt with the incident internally. It may be a trivial offence, but it sends out entirely the wrong message. Balotelli is not in a position where he can afford to give people ammunition like that.
Someone needs to let him know that Liverpool shirts are not to be discarded so easily. The night had all started so well. As they did against Manchester City this season, Liverpool dropped any ideas of caution and went for the throat of their visitors.
Cristiano Ronaldo was flattened after 10 seconds by Jordan Henderson in what seemed to be a signal of intent. Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling ran at the Real defence with gay abandon, hoping that their pace would cause panic in the ranks. It was a bright start, as bright as Liverpool have been since their resounding victory at White Hart Lane in August.
But they couldn't sustain it. As the home side faded, Real grew more confidence. And when the goals came, they came in numbers. First there was class, in the form of James Rodriguez and Ronaldo linking up for the Portuguese superstar to poke home a glorious opening goal. Then there was calamity as Karim Benzema was allowed to send a looping header high over Simon Mignolet and into the goal.
Then came catastrophe as Mignolet's surge from the goal-line left him in front of the ball and enabled Benzema to tap home a third. That early period of promise was quickly forgotten. The only positive for Liverpool was the conduct of their supporters. Nobody booed, many applauded Real off the field. Liverpool stemmed the flow of goals after the break, but never came close to threatening an Istanbul-style comeback.
Real boss Carlo Ancelotti, the AC Milan coach that night, could have been forgiven for having flashbacks on the touchline, but he was able to enjoy a restful second half, removing his key players to save them for Barcelona tomorrow. Ronaldo was one of those to bow out early. His name had been booed by the home supporters before the game, memories of his time in a Manchester United shirt still fresh for those on Merseyside.
When he exited the pitch with the game all but won, he did so to a standing ovation. Liverpool supporters have always been ready to applaud greatness. How they must wish they could give that ovation to their own striker.
HIS BACKERS SAY...
"I like players that are different. I like individual personality in people with hair and coloured boots but, as long as they don't see themselves as an individual, that is what is important. They have to fit into the parameters of the team and, if those players over the longer term don't, it can be difficult for them to work here. But, in terms of that, he is genuinely working hard and doing his best at Liverpool. He is trying hard on the training field to improve his opportunities to score goals. As long as he is doing his best that is all I can ask as a coach: whether that best is going to be good enough, that remains to be seen." - Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers
"He still has a future at Liverpool. The fans are some of the most patient, but he has to realise he's playing at Liverpool Football Club, not just any other club. He's got to show his commitment by proving it on the pitch." - Former Liverpool striker Ian Rush
"I'd still start Balotelli at the weekend. I'm not a big fan of his but he has more class than most. Harsh to put all the blame on him. Most worrying thing is his teammates' body language towards him. Once you lose their respect it's a big struggle." - Michael Owen (above) on Twitter We just had a conversation about the culture in this country and in particular Liverpool and that is it, matter closed. - Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers (right) on Mario Balotelli's shirt exchange at half-time
HIS CRITICS SAY...
"I'd be surprised to see him here next season. It was just a panic; they needed someone. They left it too late and they've bought different players in different positions instead of maybe going out, not spending the whole Suarez money on one player, but buying two or three big players." - Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher
"I don't blame Mario Balotelli - I blame Brendan Rodgers for bringing him here. There's a reason when you go to the supermarket and things are half-price. Why on earth they went for him, I'll never know." - Former Liverpool midfielder Jamie Redknapp
"The criticism is for him not showing any enthusiasm. He must do all the training all the other boys do and he looks physically fit and powerful, so I am just wondering if he doesn't have a football brain. He is just not seeing the picture of when he should be running in behind centre halves or when he should be running towards the ball. I don't know whether he has any brain to make the right decision. You never watch Mario Balotelli and think 'Wow, he's put a real stint in'." - Former Liverpool captain Graeme Souness (above)
GROUP A RESULTS Atletico Madrid 5 Malmo 0 Olympiakos 1 Juventus 0 GROUP B RESULTS Liverpool 0 Real Madrid 3 Ludogorets 1 Basel 0
This article was first published on October 24, 2014.
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