Liverpool slip again as Real Madrid comeback cements position as kings of Europe
Another vintage Real Madrid night at Anfield. Liverpool’s failure to match the one modern super club with a better Champions League record continues, and in a worse way than ever before.
It is as if, no matter what they do in this, no matter what they try, Madrid still find a way.
Here, Liverpool quickly went 2-0 up and looked like they could overrun the defending champions. There was a very brief period where they seemed invincible again. It only served as set-up to one of the great Champions League comebacks, and one of the great Champions League away performances.
Madrid no longer looked slow, as might have been perceived from those opening minutes. They were just in control, spraying the ball around the Anfield pitch.
Vinicius Jr, of course, could never look slow no matter. His pace was the primary influence on the game, shaping the pattern of play and firing the comeback with goals founded on that speed. Against that, the peerless Luka Modric knew when to measure it, and Karim Benzema when to release. The reigning Ballon D’Or winner naturally got two goals of his own, the deflected first finally taking the game away from Liverpool, the composed second maybe taking the entire tie away from Liverpool.
They now need a comeback for the ages of their own.
You could say all this is rolling back the years for Madrid, but it is like there is something eternal and internal to their Champions League standard.
Quite early into the second half, their considerable away support started singing “we are the kings of Europe”.
That is so true it can’t even be seen as goading. There was one moment of unity between the sets of supporters before the match, as the Champions League anthem was booed after the disgraceful organisation of last year’s Paris final. Liverpool certainly made their voices heard.
It all fed into what was an uproarious start. This was the frustration with a team at a crossroads. There were signs of what they have been and what they could be, only for it to be undone by what they and Madrid are right now. The defence was porous, even as the midfield briefly functioned better in attack. The forward line itself looked like it might have more to it.
Liverpool actually started the game like this was one of their own vintage European wins, particularly in the Klopp era. The hurricane start was reminiscent of the 2017-18 run to the final - although that was to have a few more unwelcome echoes, particularly from the goalkeeper.
For the first few minutes, though, Liverpool played at a pace that Madrid just couldn’t match.
Darwin Nunez played like he was just going with it, finally fitting with this team, as it at last looked itself. A brilliantly innovative finish to make 1-0 was the surest sign of that, the Uruguayan even going so far as to thunder in an otherwise delicate flick. A little later, at 2-0 after Mohamed Salah’s fortunate finish, he would offer a crucial defensive header.
It was a sign of what was to come, and that it was not to be Nunez’s night.
There was still a bit more from Liverpool, and too much out of a touch from Courtois, that only served to heighten the scale of another Madrid comeback. The goalkeeper mis-controlled the ball with what almost seemed an arrogance, allowing Salah to easily finish.
It was to be the last time anything about the game was any way easy for Liverpool. You could almost say they had been lulled into it, a classic Madrid trap.
Vinicius was certainly ready to spring. He just tore through the Liverpool defence in a new way for the first goal, thrillingly changing direction to also change the direction of the entire match. The finish was so pure.
His second goal was anything but, did come from a willingness to do the rougher work. With Alisson hesitating on a kick-out, Vinicius charged him down to ensure the ball cannoned off him and in.
As the goalkeeper looked back at the net, Madrid never looked back on the night. They were away. Liverpool couldn’t escape that shape of the game, the probing of Modric, the runs of Vinicius. It was like they were caught. Eder Militao duly took advantage of their static backline to make it 3-2, before Benzema applied his usual touches.
It could be said this is even worse for Liverpool because this has not been a good Madrid. They’ve looked unconvincing in Spain, and like they could do with more stardust.
The problem is that all this was said last season, and it was at this exact point last season that they went up a level… and then several after that.
Might we see the same now? We need to see something even more spectacular from Liverpool to prevent it from the second leg.
Madrid don’t look susceptible to that. They don’t even just look like defending European champions. They look like masters of the continent.