Liverpool were given a painful lesson in how far the Champions League has moved on in their absence as they were completely outclassed by holders Real Madrid at Anfield.
Television screens inside Anfield’s lounges relived Liverpool’s 4-0 win against Real in the last 16 in 2009 in an attempt to set the mood before kick-off – but there was never any hope of a repeat.
Cristiano Ronaldo led Real’s charge with a superb opener after 23 minutes and Karim Benzema added two before the interval to leave the hosts facing a desperate exercise in damage limitation.
Rodgers bemoans ‘sloppy’ Liverpool
It was the first time Liverpool had been three down at half-time at Anfield in their long and glorious European history – a fact no doubt noted by Real coach Carlo Ancelotti, who was in charge of AC Milan in Istanbul in 2005 when the Reds claimed the Champions League after facing a similar heavy deficit at the interval.
Here, in contrast, the Italian was able to enjoy a comfortable second half as Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers’s brave pre-match words about not being underdogs were put into context.
With just three points from their opening three games, Liverpool’s ambitions of reaching the knockout stage of a competition they cherish so much are in real peril.
And the performance of Mario Balotelli meant it was another night that left question marks over Liverpool’s decision to pay £16m for a striker who simply does not deliver when it matters.
He was substituted after 45 minutes and the sight of him swapping shirts with Real defender Pepe as the teams went off at half-time will not have been well received by home fans.
Real’s domination was so complete, and the final phase of the game such a procession, that Ancelotti felt secure enough to remove Ronaldo after 75 minutes to protect him for this weekend’s ‘El Clasico’ with Barcelona.
To their credit, The Kop set aside old differences with the former Manchester United star to applaud his departure on the night when he scored his 70th Champions League goal, leaving him just one behind another Real Madrid legend, Raul.
Ronaldo received warm applause from Liverpool fans when he was substituted in the second half
Liverpool, without the departed Luis Suarez and the injured Daniel Sturridge, look a shadow of the side that almost claimed the Premier League last season, with the pace and pressing conspicuous by their absence.
Anfield shook to the sound of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ long after the pre-match music stopped – but that was the high point of a harrowing first 45 minutes for Liverpool.
The hosts came out swinging, looking to land an early blow, but Real, without the injured Gareth Bale, rolled with the punches before delivering a masterclass in possession and attacking potency.
The 10-time European champions had shown ominous signs even before Ronaldo opened the scoring on 23 minutes. He started the move in midfield, finding James Rodriguez, who lifted a perfect chipped pass for the Portuguese to meet it on the run and hook a brilliant finish beyond Simon Mignolet.
The second goal arrived seven minutes later when Benzema sent Toni Kroos’s long cross looping beyond Mignolet with a far-post header to leave Anfield silent.
Liverpool’s early vigour had evaporated and Real were in no mood to let them off lightly – but it was the sort of shambolic defending that has characterised the season for Rodgers’s side that gave the visitors their third before the break.
A posse of Liverpool players attempted to deal with a corner but Pepe won out and, with Mignolet floundering hopelessly, Benzema stabbed home from close range.
Philippe Coutinho almost lifted the gloom with a fine effort that struck the post with Real keeper Iker Casillas beaten but it had been a chastening experience for Liverpool and their fans.
Balotelli’s replacement Adam Lallana at least helped his side raise some sort of gallop but it was still Real posing the threat, Mignolet blocking Ronaldo right in front of goal after another lacerating piece of attacking play.
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Liverpool had won all three previous meetings against Real Madrid, keeping three clean sheets in the process
Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener against Liverpool took his tally to 55 goals in 55 Champions League games for Real Madrid
Two goals from Karim Benzema meant it was the first time Liverpool have conceded three goals before half-time in the Champions League since the 2005 final
Mario Balotelli had swapped shirts with Pepe at half-time and did not emerge for the second half