Where do Liverpool go from here, beyond finding a dark room to lie down in?
The simple answer after this night of brief hope, and then overwhelming humiliation, is that they go to Crystal Palace on Saturday and they must start making up the seven-point gap to fourth place in the Premier League. Liverpool’s season has effectively come down to scrambling for Champions League qualification (and they do have two games in hand).
The more complicated conundrum is how Liverpool can rebuild their midfield, the biggest area of concern, and if Jude Bellingham will be interested in coming if Jürgen Klopp’s side are not in the Champions League? Fabinho made mistakes in possession and was outmanoeuvred. Jordan Henderson is coming towards the end at elite level. Only Stefan Bajcetic can be included in any future midfield planning and the 18-year-old was given a painful lesson here in the art of keeping and using the ball by Luka Modric, 19 years his senior.
Liverpool started so strongly, racing to a 2-0 lead within 14 minutes, but then Real took control. Liverpool were so open out of possession, and Vinícius Júnior flew through, Modric glided through and Karim Benzema swaggered through. Real were so impressive and organised out of possession, flooding the centre with the wingers Vinícius and Rodrygo tucking in, leaving Benzema up front. Liverpool kept gifting the ball away. Real kept scoring.
Both sides shaped up 4-3-3, but Real appeared to have an extra player in midfield. Modric, ageless and almost peerless, ran the show, outrunning Bajcetic. Eduardo Camavinga anchored midfield with a maturity, discipline and decision making beyond his 20 years.
With Camavinga cutting Liverpool’s strings, and Modric pulling Real’s, the visitors’ one-touch passing propelled the ball through Liverpool’s static midfield. Modric and Benzema were applauded off — by the Liverpool fans, as well as Real’s. The Kop knew they had been outclassed by two of the very best players in the world.
It was a chastening evening for Liverpool, riddled with mistakes and unwanted records. Liverpool had never lost a European first leg at home to a European team. They’d only ever lost to Leeds United in 1971 in the Fairs Cup and Chelsea in 2009 in the Champions League.
In this remarkable tenth European Cup meeting between these famous sides, Real were initially caught out by the ferocity of Liverpool’s play.
There had been an energy and a hunger to Liverpool early on, and from their fans long before the start: from the meeting of the team bus, the flares and banners in the air, the powerful rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, and to the toxic reception to all things Uefa before kick-off.
Liverpool fans emphatically made their point about the organisational shambles and near tragedy at the Champions League final in Paris last May. “F*** Uefa” they chanted. “Uefa Liars” read one banner on the Kop. Another had the same message helpfully in French — “Menteurs”. Another spelled out, “Useless Eejits Fail Again”. The Champions League anthem was booed, Zadok the Priest defrocked, and Uefa derided.
For 14 minutes, Liverpool took their anger out on Real. Within four minutes they were ahead. The attack was started in the centre-circle by Bajcetic, taken on by Henderson, then Mo Salah, who swept in a cross from the right towards the six-yard box. As Liverpool fans rose in anticipation, Darwin Núñez darted ahead of Éder Militão and flicked the ball elegantly with his right heel past Thibaut Courtois.
Liverpool were rampant, fuelled even more by their fans’ emotion. Cody Gakpo escaped the grappling attentions of Camavinga, Salah darted past David Alaba, but shot wide. Eleven minutes later, Gakpo’s heavy first touch presented the ball to Dani Carvajal. Real’s right back played the ball back to Courtois, such an accomplished ’keeper, the man of the match in Paris and the worthy recipient of the Yashin Trophy by the Ballon d’Or panel.
Courtois controlled the ball on his chest, but it dropped on to his knee, he went right to try to retrieve the situation, but the ball span left, invitingly for Salah, who stabbed it in with his left foot. It was a historic moment for Salah, who became Liverpool’s greatest goalscorer in Europe, passing Steven Gerrard’s 41.
Liverpool fans almost didn’t know whether to cheer Salah or cackle at Courtois. They acclaimed Salah, then mocked Courtois’s subsequent attempts to clear. But Real are Real, 14 times winners of this grand prize, and aware that La Liga might be beyond them given Barcelona’s lead.
So they fought back. Real were always going to respond. They have the experienced, composed guiding hand of Carlo Ancelotti in the dug-out. Liverpool had adrenalin. Real had nous and calm and Vinícius. Liverpool’s storm blew itself out — or was really snuffed out.
Vinícius moved threateningly inside after 20 minutes, briefly lent possession to Benzema, before driving the ball between the stretching Joe Gomez and Fabinho and past Alisson. Back came Vinícius again, causing Liverpool more pain, just as he did in Paris. Alisson threw himself to his left, stretched out his left hand, and kept another Vinícius shot out, but then suffered a howler even worse than Courtois’s.
Gomez showed his pace in dealing with Vinícius, playing the ball back to Alisson. Vinícius continued his run, even though it was clear that Alisson was going to reach it way before him.
Alisson had time to measure his kick, but struck it straight at Vinícius, who was already turning away. To the horror of the Kop, the ball caught Vinícius’s foot and bounced in a mocking loop into the Liverpool net: 2-2.
The dressing room should have been a haven for Liverpool at the break, a chance to regroup, but Vinícius simply tore into them again after the restart, flying past Trent Alexander-Arnold, then fouled by Gomez.
Modric drove in the free kick and Militão had the freedom of Anfield as he arrived unmarked from the far post to head in. It was the defending of statues or amateurs.
Nobody went with Militão. Nobody reacted when he arrived at the near-post. Real had clearly noted this flaw in Liverpool’s defending at set pieces and exploited it.
Real were now unstoppable. Vinícius and Benzema traded passes as they progressed regally into the Liverpool area before Benzema’s shot clipped Gomez and wrongfooted Alisson. Modric then sped away from Bajcetic, Vinícius squared to Benzema, who dummied Alisson before driving the ball home: 2-5.
It could have been even worse for Liverpool. Nacho got away from Alexander-Arnold, who pushed him as he was about to enter the Liverpool area. It could have been a tennis score.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson 6 — T Alexander-Arnold 7, J Gomez 5 (J Matip 73min), V van Dijk 6, A Robertson 5 — S Bajcetic 6 (H Elliott 85), Fabinho 6, J Henderson 7 (J Milner 73) — M Salah 6, D Núñez 5 (D Jota 64), C Gakpo 6 (R Firmino 64).
Real Madrid (4-3-3) T Courtois 6 — D Carvajal 6, E Militão 7, A Rüdiger 7, D Alaba 6 (Nacho 27, 6) — L Modric 8 (T Kroos 87), E Camavinga 7, F Valverde 7 — Rodrygo 7 (D Ceballos 79), K Benzema 8 (M Asensio 87), Vinicíus Junior 8. Booked Vinícius.
Referee I Kovcas (Rom).
Photo Credit: Getty