Reds get their priorities clear as Chelsea appear on horizon

TOUGH GOING: Raheem Sterling and Ronaldo battle for possession at the Bernabeu.TOUGH GOING: Raheem Sterling and Ronaldo battle for possession at the Bernabeu.
TOUGH GOING: Raheem Sterling and Ronaldo battle for possession at the Bernabeu.
Predictions of a rout proved to be well wide of the mark as Liverpool’s weakened side produced a disciplined, if not ultimately successful performance at the Bernabeu where Real Madrid won 1-0.

Manager Brendan Rodgers’s gamble of leaving captain Steven Gerrard, vice-captain Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling, among others, on the bench was considered bold by some and foolish by others.

Having been out-played at Anfield a fortnight ago in the 3-0 defeat, Rodgers felt it was prescient to hold back his key men for the weekend’s visit of unbeaten Premier League leaders Chelsea and made eight changes for this Group B game.

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Saturday’s match now becomes a must-win one otherwise the Reds boss will expose himself to even more criticism but, in terms of last night, his second-string can probably claim a moral victory, having kept the damage below what the first-choice side did in the previous meeting with Karim Benzema’s 26th-minute strike decisive.

In his pre-match comments, Rodgers rejected the assumption that his side’s Group B hopes – they are third but only three points behind Basle – rested on the final two matches against Ludogorets and the Swiss, but that is what it has boiled down to.

Getting their league campaign back on track is the priority, hence the controversial decision to rest his captain and other notable players.

Out of the 180 minutes Liverpool have now played at the Bernabeu, Gerrard has been involved for just 22, having been restricted to only two minutes as a substitute in 2009 because of a hamstring problem, after coming off the bench midway through the second half.

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Considering the stage of his career, it is unlikely the midfielder will get another chance to grace this impressive ground again, and he was given a warm round of applause by all sides when he belatedly made his appearance.

If he was frustrated at his inaction, he did not show it.

The only member of Liverpool’s starting line-up remaining from their famous 1-0 win here was Martin Skrtel, who was one of the three players to survive from Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Newcastle and captained the side.

From the off it took on the guise of attack versus defence but, to be fair, Liverpool handled it quite well with Simon Mignolet denying James Rodriguez and Cristiano Ronaldo inside 10 minutes.

The team’s compact structure was clear to see but, just like a fortnight ago at Anfield, the wind was taken out of their sails midway through the half when Isco picked out Marcelo in space on the left and he curled a low cross to the far post where Benzema got behind Kolo Toure to slide home.

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Toure almost embarrassed himself and Mignolet, who did well to bat away a swerving Ronaldo free-kick, when he could only stick out a foot to prevent Benzema bursting clear on goal and watched the ball loop over his goalkeeper and drop on the roof of the net.

After the break the white tide eased slightly and Liverpool were offered the odd half-chance, with Adam Lallana firing across Iker Casillas and wide of the far post after Alberto Moreno’s through-ball, and Emre Can seeing a free-kick deflected behind.

Gerrard and Sterling were sent on with 20 minutes to go but it was Real’s substitute Gareth Bale, back after a five-match absence, who made the most impact, shooting against the crossbar and then forcing Mignolet to punch away a free-kick.

But by that time Liverpool were comfortable in their surroundings and they did not crumble, as many had expected.

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Despite the defeat there was a positive, of sorts, to take from the game, but the true value of Rodgers’s bold selection will only be known after the visit of Jose Mourinho’s table-toppers.

Arsenal spurned the chance to book their place in the knockout stages as they threw away a three-goal lead to draw 3-3 with Anderlecht.

The Gunners scored twice in the last three minutes to win 2-1 in the reverse fixture a fortnight ago and Anderlecht exacted sweet revenge with an incredible second-half comeback at the Emirates Stadium.

Mikel Arteta’s penalty and Alexis Sanchez’s brilliant volley put the hosts firmly in the driving seat at half-time before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looked to have sealed all three points with a third early in the second half.

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Anthony Vanden Borre gave the visitors hope just after the hour with a close-range header and the former Portsmouth defender then added another from the penalty spot to make it 3-2.

Anderlecht poured forward in the last 10 minutes and finally got the equaliser their verve deserved as substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic headed home in the 90th minute.

A victory for the Gunners would have guaranteed their place in the knockout stages after Borussia Dortmund thrashed Galatasaray 4-1 in Germany.

Arsenal remain second and in a strong position to qualify from Group D but their chances of going through as pool winners are all but over as they now trail Dortmund by five points with two games to play.

Arsenal host Dortmund next before an awkward final group fixture away to Galatasaray.