Well. That sucked.
While no one really expected Liverpool to get a result today against arguably the best club in the world at the moment, most fans were hoping for a competitive display that saw Liverpool push Real Madrid a bit and make them really work for their points. For the first twenty minutes, that looked like it might happen; Liverpool were pressing hard, Real were having a hard time finding a breakthrough, and the Reds were able to get forward with relative frequency.
Trouble was that once Liverpool got forward, they struggled to do much in the final third. Raheem Sterling was plenty active, but he struggled some playing up top directly against Raphaël Varane. Philippe Coutinho was finding space between the lines, but with Mario Balotelli struggling to find space to work in, he could only do so much with that space.
Then the opening twenty minutes passed, Liverpool's press slowed, and Real were able to get back in to the game. Instead of forcing the ball up to Isco and James Rodriguez to create from higher up the pitch, they started playing more patiently through the deeper pivot of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, and the pair quickly started to unlock Liverpool's defense. Using runs designed to overload Steven Gerrard and the defensive midfield area, Real pushed harder and harder until Cristiano Ronaldo scored that goal, one that Martin Skrtel and Simon Mignolet did well to try and prevent, but one that they honestly couldn't have done a thing about given the quality of the run, pass, and finish.
If Liverpool had kept it at just a one-goal deficit, maybe they could have done something... but then Glen Johnson followed the ball instead of defending the post like he was supposed to, and a cross from Kroos went over his head and to a completely unmarked Karim Benzema, who had literally walked past Johnson on his way behind Liverpool's defense.
Minutes later, Johnson again seemed to lose track of Benzema as the Frenchman pounced between him and Gerrard to hammer home a loose ball after a blocked shot from a corner. While it's true that Mignolet could have done better against the initial shot and rebound, the complete collapse of all marking assignment had at least as much to do with the goal, and that lack of discipline is far less forgivable than not smothering a hard shot from point blank range.
Liverpool were able to hold firm from there, but their best chance to score for themselves was a Coutinho bar-cracking shot just before half time. They kept their defense firm the rest of the way (though not for lack of frightening moments), but never could find a way past Varane and Pepe to try and get at a recently-shaky Iker Casillas.
While many are choosing to heap the blame for this match on Mario Balotelli, he actually had a decent half of football before he was hauled off at the start of the second period. There was a moment in the opening minutes that saw Mario hold the the ball when a pass to Sterling could have seen Raheem through on goal, but otherwise he was active, involved, and looked more likely to find some form of success than he has in awhile.
Instead of seeing hope, fans are making Balotelli in to a scapegoat for the club, when the real failings today were on the back line, more specifically with Glen Johnson. After a good opening ten minutes, the England international seemed to lose a step seemingly out of nowhere, not getting forward reliably, and not being useful when he was. In defense, he was too easily turned by whichever Real attacker of the moment was facing him down, and a pair of blown assignments in the penalty area took the match from a reachable goal to a demoralizing beating.
While Johnson used to be one of England's best at his position, there's been a lot of debate over the last couple of years as to how useful he is now. After his last few performances, there's really one answer left: he's not. At all.
A loss to Real Madrid is nothing to be ashamed of, but the fact of the matter is that Liverpool are trying to succeed in a competition, and missing out on points today makes that a lot harder. Liverpool are still very much in the thick of the race to qualify out of their Champions League group, the club has to feel disappointed with their campaign at the halfway point of the stage. After three matches, Liverpool have one scraped-out win against what's probably the weakest team in the group, and two losses coupled with performances that have been flat and disappointing.
Ludogorets did them a huge favor today when they beat Basel, leaving the three clubs tied at three points apiece. The Bulgarians are just ahead of Liverpool in the standings at the moment thanks to goal differential, but if Liverpool can beat Ludogorets on the road and get some sort of result against Basel at home, that will leave them in good shape for qualification. For now, though, Liverpool have left themselves a steep hill to climb, a situation that they will have to work very hard to correct.