Liverpool entered their last match against Real Madrid on a note of cautious optimism after back to back league wins. In the end, that optimism lasted for about 20 minutes, as a side enlivened by the Anfield crowd pressed the visitors all over the pitch and looked the better side. Liverpool, for all their struggles, looked good; looked better than the consensus choice for the top side in Europe at the moment.
They couldn't capitalise on that good play, though, and their opponents soon made them pay the price for it, putting three past Simon Mignolet and ending the night on auto-pilot as they looked forward to a weekend match against Barcelona. Though the defence didn't stand out in a particularly positive light, the real concern was attack, where an isolated Mario Balotelli failed to provide a hint of end product while Liverpool were up in the run of play.
It was another chapter in the narrative that's defined Liverpool's season so far and increasingly threatens to undermine it completely: the insistence of Brendan Rodgers to play as a lone striker a player who, no matter how hard he works, is categorically ill-suited to the role. And since the Madrid loss, things have only gotten worse, with Liverpool's anemic attack failing to click in a dull nil-nil draw with Hull and a poor 1-0 loss to Newcastle.
Liverpool went into their last Champions League match cautiously optimistic. They go into this one in a far worse place. Madrid, meanwhile, will see their already deadly attack bolstered by the return of Gareth Bale, though one expects he won't start in his first game back from injury. Even if he isn't match fit, though, Madrid are in top form—after dispatching Liverpool they demolished Barcelona before swatting away Granada on Saturday.
Christiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez, and Karim Benzema will all be available and are likely to start, as are midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. It's a collection that appears unbalanced on paper, but Madrid have looked increasingly comfortable—and increasingly dominant—this season with their Galactico core. If there is a weak area, it's at the back, and particularly in goal, where Iker Casillas continues to look shaky.
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
The song remains the same on the injury front, with Sturridge, Flanagan, Skaho, and Suso out of the running. It's also clear Brendan Rodgers' attempts to concoct a lopsided 4-2-3-1 that mutates into a 3-2-4-1 in possession isn't working. It's an intriguing approach, the left back playing in the support band as more winger than defender while the right back and left centre half split wide in a pseudo 3-man backline, but it hasn't solved the isolated lone striker problem.
And while Real Madrid might seem an odd time to throw caution to the wind with a return to the attacking diamond, the reality is that nobody actually expects Liverpool to get a result tomorrow. They're the underdogs by a fairly heavy margin and in poor form, which makes tomorrow's match as good a time as any to get back to an approach that worked before, albeit with a largely new group of players who may or may not be perfectly suited to it.
It's also a chance to try getting Coutinho and Lallana out together on the pitch from the start. The two have been Liverpool's best players over the past month, but despite that both have shown the flexibility over their careers to excel in the 8, 10, or 11 roles, and despite that both have shown they are more than willing to put in a defensive shift, so far Rogers has rather surprisingly refused to fit the two of them into the same lineup with any kind of regularity.
If Rodgers goes 4-3-3 and only one of Lallana or Coutinho—which might, for better or isolated Mario Balotelli worse, be most likely—there's a chance we get Emre Can in midfield after Joe Allen's sub-par display against Newcastle. At the back, meanwhile, there's little choice but to run out the Skrtel-Lovren pairing again, while Glen Johnson was another poor performer against Newcastle, which should get Manquillo back in the starting eleven regardless of what happens elsewhere.
Kickoff is set for 7:45PM GMT/2:45PM EST on Tuesday, with ITV providing coverage in the UK and Fox Sports 1 carrying the match in the US. Our coverage will start with the overnight open thread tonight and carry into the matchday post early tomorrow, which will have team sheets an hour before kickoff. Hope you'll be around to join us--if you haven't already, sign up for an SBNation profile and stick around.