The zombie kings of Europe rise again at Anfield
Esto es Anfield. Y que?
It was entirely wrong in 2009, the message from the Spanish media as Real Madrid came to Anfield seeking to overturn a Yossi Benayoun goal from the first leg. This time around though - even with two Liverpool wins recently - Europe’s finest from last season could have been forgiven for thinking maybe there was an element of that which might ring true this time around.
This is Anfield. So what? After all, the Reds lost here to Leeds, were held by Derby in normal time, couldn’t beat Wolves and drew with Chelsea, all within the past nine games on home soil. This isn’t the Liverpool of last season and the reigning champions of this competition came to Merseyside full of belief of taking not just a positive result, but a win.
It briefly went so differently. Real are hardly the first team to have been hit hard and fast on a European night, the pre-match fury of the home support having an added layer to it on the first Champions League night since the Uefa report was released acknowledging their misrepresentations of the final in Paris last term. “Uefa liars”, one banner on the Kop read.
The match anthem was drowned out; then the real action got underway and so too were the lines of communication between the visitors’ defenders.
That’s the assumption, anyway, as Liverpool roared through them three and four times early on, scoring once, going close again a time or two more and then making the most of Thibaut Courtois’ most calamitous moment of the season.
Just 15 minutes in and Real could have been in danger of being blown away. Except, even within that period of the game, Real had shown signs of their own threat, shown why they are consistently able to find moments on the biggest stage so that, even when not in as good form or seemingly outright not as good a team, they still win ties. Still win trophies.
And so it came to pass over the remainder of the half: a 45-minute microcosm of Los Blancos’ ability to look past it, finished, in need of renewal - but also of being the zombie Kings of Europe, those who cannot die and cannot be dethroned entirely. A team, in short, who lack at times but still have more than everybody else at others, particularly in the final third.
Between collective brilliance, individual errors and moments which are yet to be fully explained, Real went from two down to 4-2 up in the space of 36 minutes, either side of half time. It ended up 5-2 and could have been more, on either side of that scoreline.
This is what they can still do: turn it on and turn it up, for spells of games which matter most, getting right to the heart of any opponents’ weakness - in this case, a lack of speed from a defensive standpoint when turned around.
The deflected Benzema goal was actually the biggest example of this, as three midfielders were bypassed through quick exchanges of wall passes and runners off the ball. But each of the other strikes saw midfielders or defenders spun past, left flat-footed, embarassed by sheer movement.
Vinicius Jr was, naturally, a constant outlet and threat. Karim Benzema produced yet another wonderful display of poise. But the biggest difference between the teams was the most obvious one pre-game: the midfield.
It has been a thorn of Liverpool’s for months, off the ball in particular, and even the two recent wins - while far, far better in attack - did not show a marked improvement in terms of central control, organisation or protection for the back line.
Real’s, meanwhile, has been the lynchpin of their success and has been updated. Only Luka Modric of the long-standing trio was in place here, but Federico Valverde did his usual dominating act when it mattered and Eduardo Camavinga simply played around the concrete legs in red.
Away goals no longer count for anything extra in the Champions League. But five of them in a first leg will almost certainly count for enough.
And Real have their own legs in midfield, just as much as that infallible sense of being better, to thank for that.