By Andrew Ronan
There is a fine line in football when it comes to a player or manager either being a hero or villain. After his sides one-nil defeat to Real Madrid in the Bernabeu this week, Brendan Rodgers plays the role of the villain after he fielded a ‘weakened’ team against the European champions in an important Champions League game.When news of the players Rodgers was choosing to take on Ronaldo and co. emerged not long before kick-off, the press pack were sharpening their knives in anticipation of Real dishing out a severe hiding to the five times European champions.
How could a side including the likes of Kolo Toure, Lazar Markovic and Fabio Borini expect to get anything in the Bernabeu? What was Rodgers doing? Was he admitting defeat before a ball was kicked in anger? Questions like those, and many more, were going to make up the bulk of the many column inches which would tell the story of how Real embarrassed Rodgers’ men and Liverpool’s rich history in the European Cup.It seems no-one outside of the Liverpool dressing room, at least, expected the eleven in red to put in such a professional and disciplined display.
However, the commendable performance by his players did little to spare Rodgers some severe criticism. Liverpool weren’t hammered by Madrid – far from it – and because of this the critics of Rodgers have only been able to use the rather flimsy excuse that he tarnished Liverpool’s European heritage. That heritage, of course, is almost unrivalled, but it didn’t really matter on Tuesday night, did it? It did to those who evaluate Liverpool with one eye in the rear view mirror, but the reality is that the clubs proud European history matters little when form and confidence is poor. And Rodgers is a realist, hence his team selection.
After Real won three-nil at Anfield, Liverpool have taken one point in league games they expected to win – Hull at home and Newcastle away. In those two games, Rodgers picked the same eight players: Mignolet, Skrtel, Lovren, Moreno, Gerrard, Allen, Sterling and Balotelli. Only four of those players started in the Bernabeu – Mignolet, Skrtel, Moreno and Allen. Against Real, Toure, Manquillo, Lucas, Borini and Markovic came in on the back of good performances in the Capitol One Cup defeat of Swansea – which was sandwiched between the Hull and Newcastle games. Adam Lallana and Emre Can, the other two players to make up the team against Real, both started against Hull but not Newcastle.
So Rodgers clearly looked at who played well against Swansea – arguably Liverpool’s best performance for a number of weeks – and decided they merited a start at the Bernabeu. From the other players who started against Real – Mignolet, Skrtel, Moreno, Allen, Lallana and Can – only perhaps Henderson replacing Can can be argued for, as Rodgers was never going to thrust Brad Jones into action instead of Mignolet. However, Henderson has been poor of late, especially against Real in the game at Anfield and away to Newcastle.
So can Rodgers be blamed for selecting the team he did? More so, can he be blamed for leaving out Gerrard, Coutinho, Sterling and Balotelli?The poor form by Liverpool’s so called ‘top’ players this season was what forced Rodgers into wholesale changes, not the little faith he had in them getting Liverpool a result – as many have suggested.
Balotelli? Well, he’s been a disappointment to say the least. Sterling? He hasn’t looked the same player this season without a Sturridge or Suarez around him. Coutinho? Has showed flashes of brilliance, but his end product is still lacking. And Gerrard, too often this season, has been a hindrance to Liverpool as teams are simply pressing him into making mistakes in Liverpool’s half.
So perhaps Brendan Rodgers, who knows his players better than any journalist or pundit, should be cut some slack. He’s hardly doing worse than Manuel Pellegrini or Louis Van Gaal, is he? Both of them possess an array of fit, attacking talent yet they are both struggling to fulfil short-term expectations.
Sadly, though, there is a sense that Rodgers will continue to receive criticism no matter what he does, because he elevated Liverpool back near the top last season and, in turn, put himself in the firing line.