LIVERPOOL (AFP) – Brendan Rodgers has challenged his Liverpool players to rise to the occasion when they face holders Real Madrid in a crucial Champions League showdown at Anfield on Wednesday.
Rodgers’ side can’t afford to lose any more ground in the race to qualify for the knockout stages after a shock loss against Basel in their previous Group B match.
The Reds have been well below their best of much of the season and there were more worrying signs for Rodgers on Sunday when QPR, the Premier League’s bottom club, outplayed Liverpool for long periods of an chaotic encounter.
Liverpool eventually won 3-2 despite twice squandering the lead in the final minutes.
Given Liverpool’s defenders had huge trouble with QPR’s willing but limited strike partnership of Bobby Zamora and Charlie Austin, it would be no surprise if Rodgers had suffered a few sleepless nights contemplating how his creaky defence will deal with Real’s breath-taking array of attacking talent.
Even if Wales winger Gareth Bale is sidelined by a buttock muscle injury, Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti has Cristiano Ronaldo in arguably the best form of his majestic career, while the likes of Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric comprise a formidable support act for the spotlight-hogging Portugal star.
Ronaldo has broken a 71-year La Liga record by scoring 15 goals in the first eight matches of the season and is also just two short of Real legend Raul’s Champions League record of 71 goals.
With a trip to Madrid next up in a fortnight, Rodgers knows a defeat on Wednesday would leave Liverpool in severe danger of bowing out of the competition at the first hurdle.
Yet European nights at Anfield, when the club’s supporters routinely pump up the decibel count to ear-splitting levels, remain a unique experience that can unnerve even the most seasoned performers.
Rodgers hopes the do-or-die nature of the tie, combined with the Anfield atmosphere, will lift his team out of their current malaise.
“Whenever you play in the big games the great competitors come out and I have no doubt with my players as their mentality is very strong,” Rodgers said.
“It is a really exciting game on Wednesday. The work we put in over the last season or so means this is our reward but it is a game we want to go and win.
“Anfield is a special place for a Champions League football game and we are really looking forward to it.
“But you have to be careful – they are the best counter-attacking team in the world with the speed they have.”
In contrast to Liverpool’s lethargic performances of late, Madrid arrive on Merseyside in imperious form.
Ancelotti’s side have won their last seven matches in all competitions, scoring 32 goals in the process after routing Levante 5-0 on Saturday.
“I think we are arriving well into this week,” Ancelotti said. “We have time to recover and then think about the game on Wednesday.”
With six points already secured from their opening two Champions League games, Real are well on course for the last 16 and could be forgiven for having an eye on the first El Clasico of the season at home to Barcelona on Saturday.
Bale was an unused substitute at Levante and Ancelotti insisted he wouldn’t take any risks with the Welshman ahead of Barcelona’s visit to the Bernabeu, while defender Sergio Ramos has been struggling with a calf strain and could also be sidelined at Anfield.
If Bale does miss out, Ronaldo will shoulder more of the creative burden and Real’s Alvaro Arbeloa, a former Liverpool defender, expects his supremely confident team-mate to have no problems taking the leading role.