Liverpool are going to need another one of their Champions League miracles.
Jurgen Klopp’s side find themselves staring down the barrel again, after being beaten 3-1 by Real Madrid in the first leg of their quarter-final clash on Tuesday night.
Two goals from Vinicius Junior and one from Marco Asensio did the damage for Zinedine Zidane’s men, although Mo Salah’s away goal offers a glimmer of hope for the Reds ahead of next week’s return fixture at Anfield.
They’ll need a big improvement if they are to salvage their hopes of a seventh European crown. This was a chastening night in the Spanish capital, a night when all their old frailties were exposed by a Madrid side chasing a record 14th triumph in the competition.
Liverpool had arrived confident, revitalised by a recent uptick in form and a new-found solidity and intensity. They were, Klopp said, “built for these games”, ready to go toe-to-toe with the team that wrecked their dreams in the 2018 final.
They didn’t deliver on their promise. Just as in Kiev, Klopp’s side were distinctly second best, outclassed and outpassed by their slick, experienced rivals.
The scoreline was the same, and so was the pattern, Liverpool not good enough in possession and punished for their errors, both individual and collective.
Klopp cut a frustrated figure on the sideline, but he too must take his share of the blame. If his players made mistakes, then so did he.
His team selection gamble didn’t pay off. Naby Keita, a surprise starter in midfield, lasted just 42 minutes before being substituted, in what was a damning indictment of the manager’s plan.
Klopp had hoped to press Real into submission, using the Guinea international’s energy to play on the front foot. “We want dribblers,” he said pre-match, insisting that Keita’s performances in training could not be ignored.
Training is one thing, a Champions League quarter-final is quite another. Liverpool barely laid a glove on Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in the first half.
Keita, making only his ninth start of the season in all competitions and just his second in Europe, looked lost, a player short of rhythm, floundering the big stage.
He was by no means alone. Liverpool’s performance in the first 45 minutes was staggering, as bad as anything they have produced all season- and they’ve produced some rubbish.
They reached the break 2-0 down, and having failed to register a single shot, on or off target. The last time that happened in the first time of a Champions League game? November 2014, away to Real Madrid.
The last time they conceded twice in the first half of a Champions League game? The 2005 against Milan in Istanbul.
Klopp hooked Keita before the break, but he could have chosen any number of targets. Fabinho was dire, Trent Alexander-Arnold was exposed, while the front three of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota were non-existent. At the back Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak looked what they are – limited defenders being asked to play at the top level.
Salah’s goal, six minutes into the second half, raised hope of a comeback, but it was a fleeting high. As quickly as they had won back some control, Liverpool lost it again.
Vinicius, the game’s outstanding player along with the ageless Kroos, squeezed one past Alisson and Real’s two-goal advantage was restored.
At least it didn’t get any worse for the Reds, although it may well have done had Real been a little more clinical on the counter. Liverpool ended the game dishevelled, their shape gone and their substitutes unable to have any kind of meaningful impact.
They will still feel they are in the tie. They have overturned bigger deficits than this, of course. Never, though, have they had to do so without the backing of their home supporters. The power of Anfield will be turned down significantly next week.
Real Madrid have one foot in the semi-finals. Liverpool need to rouse themselves. For a club which specialises in making European memories, this was a night to forget.