Liverpool's return to the Champions League has not been smooth and after three group stage games, the club have won just one and lost two. Irrespective of the arena or competition, Liverpool losing to Real Madrid is neither a great shock nor great disgrace whether it is by two goals or three.
Paul Merson described the game in Sky Sports' Champions League highlights show as being useful as an educational experience for Liverpool's younger players such as Raheem Sterling. This is the sort of level where the best in Europe operate at. Clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich are at the very top of the European gae. Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund (on current Champions League form and style), Atlético Madrid, and Manchester City (on personnel not recent progress) would be the sort of sides to join the "big three" in completing a Champions League quarter final line-up. Roma and Juventus may have struggled in the third matchday but are good sides.
There's a lot for Brendan Rodgers and his players to learn from a Champions League campaign that still offers opportunities for progression. Also, there could be so much more to be discussed post match but once again, Mario Balotelli has become a needless story after the game. He toiled as much as any Liverpool player in the first 45 minutes but was substituted for Adam Lallana at half-time. That alone would cause chatter among media types and fans, but there was an incident at the half-time interval that added further unnecessary attention for a striker that seems to be unfairly targeted as the source of all the club's ills and points of discussion. Irony! Irony!
Mario Balotelli swapped a shirt with Pepe at half-time and maybe his intuition told him that it was the end of the game for him anyway so go with the flow? Did Pepe ask Mario for his Liverpool jersey with those innocent and trustworthy eyes of his? Who knows. It isn't the cause of Liverpool's failure to keep clean sheets, defend set pieces, avoid individual errors, and virtually gift at least one goal per game no matter the quality of the opposition. The whereabouts of one Mario Balotelli jersey and how it came to its current residence doesn't explain why an entire midfield must sit deep for one player or the fortune Liverpool possess as the side is currently in a decent position in all competitions despite an underwhelming start to the campaign.
"It's not something I like," Rodgers answered when questioned on Balotelli's unforgivable shenanigans. "We had an incident last year with a player that was dealt with internally. It's not something that I stand for. If you want to do that, you do it at the end of the game. I will deal with it tomorrow."
Brendan Rodgers was referring to Mamadou Sakho's jersey tangling with former Chelsea striker Samuel Eto'o, who currently plays for Liverpool's local rivals Everton. Depressingly, The Daily Telegraph reported that Balotelli will be fined for his perceived indiscretion. However, if Liverpool's code of conduct forbids players to do so based on the manager's personal preferences, then it should just be a simple matter as it was last season.
Naturally, Super Mario's involvement invites headlines such as these. More importantly, Rodgers doesn't seem to be satisfied with Balotelli in terms of work rate. The goals and the tactical fit for a single striker system are not there but, according to Rodgers, pressing can be added to the list based on Balotelli's opening 45 minute showing.
"It was purely tactical," Rodgers revealed. "I felt we needed more movement centrally to occupy the centre halves more, and Raheem's speed would give us that. "In the second half, you could see every single player pressing and wanting to get something from the game. At Liverpool, you need to press and work. Raheem worked tirelessly all the way through, which is credit to him."
Rodgers seems to be the type of manager who makes quick decisions on more experienced signings. It's still early in the Italian's Liverpool career but Mario Balotelli appears to be a convenient and unfortunate distraction for a side that has clear structural errors with a worrying predilection for presenting goals as gifts for the opposition. One goal in ten appearances (eight starts) in all competitions is a poor return for a player of Super Mario's abilities and more needs to come from him in the games to come. In the spirit of the immortal detective Columbo, there's just one more thing. When both player and manager appear to be in agreement on what is needed for improved performances, it is difficult to accept continued and extensive criticism from pundits, journalists, fans, and the manager himself of a player who is not alone in struggling on the pitch.