By Iain Rogers
Holders Real Madrid secured their place in the last 16 of the Champions League with two games to spare when a Karim Benzema strike secured a 1-0 win in their Group B match at home to a toothless Liverpool on Tuesday.
Benzema clipped a Marcelo cross high into the net from close range in the 27th minute to maintain Real’s perfect record in the pool with 12 points from four games.
It was the record 10-times European champions’ 12th win in a row in all competitions and followed their 3-0 success against Liverpool at Anfield last month.
A major surprise was the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo failed to get on the scoresheet and he remains one goal short of the Champions League scoring record of 71 set by former Real and Schalke 04 forward Raul.
Real were close to full strength for the clash at a chilly and breezy Bernabeu, while Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers made a host of changes from the team that lost to Newcastle United in the Premier League at the weekend.
Captain Steven Gerrard, Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Mario Balotelli were all on the bench, while Gareth Bale, who is coming back from injury, was among the Real substitutes.
Real had an early chance when James Rodriguez forced a good save from Simon Mignolet in the fourth minute before the visitors settled and started to play some neat football without threatening the home goal.
A mistake by Liverpool captain Martin Skrtel in the 10th minute gifted possession to Benzema and he set up Ronaldo, but Mignolet pulled off another fine stop to deny the Portuguese.
A well worked move yielded Real’s opening goal. Isco sent Marcelo clear on the left and his pinpoint cross was turned high into the net by Benzema as the Liverpool players appealed for a non-existent offside.
Liverpool failed to muster a shot in the first half to Real’s 13 and the European champions continued where they had left off in the second period with Ronaldo going close in the 49th minute.
Alberto Moreno had Liverpool’s first effort when he forced Iker Casillas, who was making a record 144th Champions League appearance, into a save in the 56th minute and Adam Lallana fired wide two minutes later.
Bale, who had replaced Rodriguez nine minutes earlier, turned a Marcelo cross onto the crossbar in the 71st and although the introduction of Sterling with around 20 minutes left gave Liverpool some extra zip they did not come close to an equaliser.
Basel are well placed to join Real in the knockout round after they beat Ludogorets 4-0 and have six points, with Liverpool and the Bulgarian champions on three each.
By Iain Rogers