For both Real Madrid and Liverpool, the Champions League has offered the possibility of redemption after difficult and poor seasons. As it turned out, Real Madrid can win La Liga somehow after all, and now have a clear advantage after the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals, which doubles as a repeat of the end of 2018. A 3-1 score may not be entirely decisive, and Mohamed Salah’s away goal may be the source of some hope for Liverpool to face the second leg next week, but Madrid he looked much better in Tuesday’s clash in the Spanish capital.
For Madrid, the pattern has become very familiar: a rough group stage, followed by a slow acceleration through knockouts as the three midfield veterans Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić and Casemiro find their rhythm. It was enough to win three Champions League titles with Zinedine Zidane and, with Madrid in the most open half of the table after the last draw, it could be enough to reach another final.
Given how slow La Liga teams have been against high-class rivals this season, and given how nervous Madrid were with the Manchester City press last season, it had been thought that the Spanish champions could be vulnerable. As it turned out, Liverpool couldn’t get a glove on Madrid before halftime, instead finding themselves caught in their own half, desperately defending.
This is not the Liverpool of the last two seasons. Injuries have hit cohesion, especially at center-back, where he has used 18 different combinations this season. A Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak couple is no one’s idea of an elite. When given a foothold, Liverpool still have the firepower for the troubled sides, as they proved against poor Arsenal on Sunday, but on Tuesday they never entered the game until it was 2-0. He was too slow in possession and was never able to push, and the result was that the three forwards barely participated.
Jürgen Klopp pulled off a huge surprise by leaving Thiago Alcântara out for Naby Keïta, but if his running power was meant to upset Madrid, he was seriously out of line. Keïta gave away the ball over and over again, while Kroos in particular had one of those quiet games where he dominates the midfield without even seeing a sweat. It was his long passes that led to the two goals before the break, while Keïta was removed by Thiago three minutes before the break.
First, Kroos selected Vinicius Junior with a 50-yard pass. Moving left to right, Vinicius ran between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Phillips, took the ball to his chest and finished with great fluidity.
The second was a long diagonal that Alexander-Arnold got in the way of Marco Asensio, who threw the ball over Alisson and then elbowed the empty net. Liverpool were furious that Lucas Vásquez had escaped with a barge on Sadio Mané in preparation, but that incident was 27 seconds before the goal and in a different phase of the game. It should have been a free kick, but it was too far from goal for the VAR to intervene.
There has been much debate about Alexander-Arnold’s omission from Gareth Southgate’s last England team, and this seemed like a game almost designed to explain his reservations about the right-back. Moving forward, Alexander-Arnold remains an excellent defender, despite his poor form in the first half of this season, and is one of the best crossovers in the Premier League. But when Liverpool are on the defensive, when their forward runs are restricted, they are not a great defensive back row and were very exposed at times.
But the second half had a very different dynamic. Liverpool were able to climb higher on the pitch, and as soon as they put pressure on Madrid’s rear, the home side was unstable. After a first half in which Madrid dominated almost completely, Liverpool scored an away goal six minutes into the second, and Salah converted Gini Wijnaldum’s pass.
This Liverpool, however, is fundamentally not good enough at the rear. Although the second half was from end to end, the fourth vital goal was for Madrid. It was largely due to Liverpool’s carelessness in defending a throw-in, with Modrić diving unanswered into the area and feeding Vinicius to squeeze his second (and only fourth in Champions League history) on Alisson.
Liverpool have come back from worse disadvantages than this against a Spanish team in the knockout stages of the Champions League, but there are big differences between this tie and the 3-0 comeback against Barcelona two years ago. Back then, the 3-0 gap never seemed representative of the difference between the teams in the first leg, with a much more confident and consistent Liverpool returning to raucous Anfield to attempt their comeback. And Madrid too, even if it’s missing its The top-level centrals, Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane, showed no signs of being as unstable as Barça.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.