Liverpool see red over Balotelli shirt swap as Ronaldo reigns
Fans turn on moody Italian striker as Anfield lauds Ronaldo after Real Madrid masterclass
Liverpool 0 Real Madrid 3.The reigning European champions gave Liverpool a rude awakening at Anfield as they illustrated just how far the Reds really are from taking their place among the European elite.
It was also a tale of two strikers, which highlighted the gulf between the two teams. At one end Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's most lethal finisher, finally ticked Anfield off the list of grounds where he has scored. At the other, Mario Balotelli did a lot of huffing and not much puffing, and was hauled off at half time after swapping shirts with Madrid defender Pepe in the tunnel.
Having failed to make any impact on the pitch, Balotelli once again proved he has the knack of creating headlines off it by giving away his Liverpool shirt at the very first opportunity, and with his side trailing 3-0, sparking uproar on social media.
It is an act guaranteed to enrage traditionalists and managers who demand pride in the shirt. Alex Ferguson threatened to kick Ruud van Nistelrooy out of Old Trafford when he switched shirts at half time during the Manchester derby. Arsenal defender Andre Santos was forced to issue an apology to fans when he exchanged tops with Robin van Persie in 2012 and left the club soon after. And Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers is known to take a dim view of the practice after fining Mamadou Sakho for something similar last season.
Rodgers insisted the shirt swap was not the reason for taking Balotelli off, and he was not short of excuses to do so, but he made it clear that he was not happy. "It is not something I stand for," he said. "If you want to do that, you do it at the end of the game. It is something I will deal with tomorrow."
Rodgers appears to be running out of patience with the striker, who was booed by some fans.
The incident was the main talking point of the game from a Liverpool perspective and has generated plenty of comment on Balotelli's Anfield future, just two months after he arrived at the club. The Liverpool Echo raged that Balotelli "owes every Liverpool fan an apology after his disgraceful conduct... it was insulting to his manager, team-mates and supporters alike". TV pundit Jamie Carragher said he would be "surprised to see him here next season".
Balotelli's incendiary actions came after Liverpool had been torn apart by the champions of Europe. Ronaldo, inevitably, opened the scoring after 23 minutes with a stunning, yet dainty, volley struck on the run and under pressure from Martin Skrtel, which looped over Simon Mignolet and into the net.
Karim Benzema reminded everyone that he is a striker not to be underestimated as he capitalised on some slack Liverpool marking to send a far-post header back over Mignolet and into the corner after half an hour. And the Frenchman was on hand just a few minutes later to stab home after a corner caused confusion in the Liverpool box.
The second half was goalless, and Balotelli's absence meant that the home side lined up without a recognised centre foward in the second period, with Raheem Sterling the most advanced Liverpool player. But Anfield already knew the game was up and even found time to applaud Ronaldo when he was withdrawn with 20 minutes to go.
"For Liverpool, comprehensively outplayed and outgunned by the European champions, last night brought a defeat so resounding that the locals, long before the end, had decided to herald it as a Real Madrid masterclass," writes Oliver Kay of The Times.