Nottingham Forest
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 By David Usher

Rodgers' post-Madrid comments were nonsense but team selection correct

It wasn't the hammering many expected, as Liverpool produced a disciplined and spirited performance away at Real Madrid. It certainly provided some cause for optimism but ultimately the Reds still lost the game, although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise given the gushing praise Brendan Rodgers lavished on his players and their performance afterwards.

Let's get it right: Liverpool were well beaten, and while the scoreline was respectable, to suggest they were unlucky not to get something from the game, as Rodgers did, is complete nonsense.

Madrid were well worthy of the win and Liverpool were in no way unlucky. In the context of where the Reds are right now, however, there was certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but come on, Brendan, pump the brakes on the praise, eh? At the end of the day it was still a loss and this is still Liverpool, not some League Two minnow putting up a valiant fight against a Premier League side in the FA Cup.

Of course the main talking point both before and after was the controversial team selection, and even Jose Mourinho took time out from criticising his own fans to question Liverpool's starting XI. Rodgers was quizzed by a reporter before kickoff and seemed perplexed.

"I'd be surprised if the fans are disappointed," he stated. "Most of these players played well against Swansea in the Capital One Cup." He had a straight face when he said it, too. I wouldn't want to play poker against Brendan, because "disappointment" didn't even begin to cover it. The reaction on social media and fans' forums, not to mention the barrage of text messages I received from friends, was more "raging fury" than disappointment. In fairness, by full-time many had completely changed their view.

Was the criticism justified to begin with, though? Just how much of a "weakened" side was it? A lot of big names were left out, but few could justifiably complain about not being selected. For weeks I've been listening to Liverpool fans hammering Dejan Lovren and complaining about Steven Gerrard being un-droppable. I've also heard plenty calling for Fabio Borini to be given an opportunity because he's more mobile than Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert, while Jordan Henderson's form has been poor of late and there is a suggestion he's carrying a slight injury.

Philippe Coutinho's invisible-man act away from Anfield made him a luxury they could ill afford in such a tough game, and Glen Johnson has been so appalling for almost the entirety of 2014 that many Kopites will be hoping his absence from the side is a permanent one.

Let's not forget that Liverpool's so-called strongest team stank St James' Park out at the weekend, having drawn a blank at home to Hull City a week earlier. They were also incredibly fortunate to beat QPR recently, needing two own goals and a deflection to scrape past the relegation fodder. So there was nothing to suggest they'd perform against a Real Madrid side that had beaten them 3-0 at a canter two weeks ago at Anfield. All things considered, Rodgers was completely justified in mixing things up, especially given the number of games his side have played in a short space of time.

"I go with my gut feeling and it was that the performance we had on Saturday wasn't as good as what we would have wanted," Rodgers said. Hard to argue with that, but there's also no question that the upcoming game with Chelsea was also on his mind and it will be interesting to see just how many of those left out will return for that one. If the team is picked on form, then it should not be many.

Indeed, Raheem Sterling is the only one who should walk straight back in, and he was also the one player omitted at the Bernabeu who would have unquestionably improved the side, as this was always going to be a backs-to-the-wall performance in which positional discipline and running power were of paramount importance. The players selected provided that in spades. Would those on the bench have produced similar?

The selection of Borini up front was perhaps the easiest decision Rodgers has had to make all season. In a game such as this, Liverpool simply could not carry Balotelli or Lambert; they needed someone who would run and run and then, when he'd ran himself to a standstill, suck it up and run some more. What Borini lacks in finesse he always attempts to make up for in endeavour and it was absolutely the right call to start him in this game.

Lazar Markovic was a more contentious choice as the Serb has shown nothing so far. He produced a positive performance in which he at least attempted to carry the fight to the opposition. Too often he's been timid and hesitant, and while his runs at the heart of the Madrid defence were snuffed out by Sergio Ramos and the imperious Rafael Varane, it was refreshing to see him giving it a go.

The Spaniard and Kolo Toure performed at a much higher level than either Johnson or Lovren have managed all season and can both currently lay legitimate claim to a place in Liverpool's strongest lineup. Elsewhere, Lucas impressed in the screening role in front of the defence before being sacrificed for the greater playmaking ability of Gerrard when Liverpool were chasing an equaliser, while Emre Can is another who justified his selection and continues to show potential. Rodgers clearly wanted runners and tacklers against Madrid, and those selected carried out their roles well.

It's widely assumed that Gerrard and others will be back for Chelsea, but Rodgers said: "We picked the team to try to get a result tonight. All those that weren't playing tonight, it doesn't necessarily mean they'll play against Chelsea." Nor should they.

In fact, if Johnson, Lovren, Balotelli and co all return on Saturday then the flak thrown Rodgers' way on Tuesday night will be mild in comparison. Frankly, I'd be amazed if he goes down that road.

There have been plenty of things to criticise about Liverpool this season, but the manager's team selection in the Spanish capital is not one of them. In fact, you could probably argue it's one of the few things they have got right.

Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.


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