It took them three years, but Real Madrid are finally in the Champions League semifinals again for the first time since winning the competition in 2018. They beat Liverpool in the final that year by 3-1, the same scoreline that they earned in the first leg of this tie against the same opponent, which eventually proved enough to see them through.
Too little, too late from Liverpool
In all fairness, Liverpool looked like the better team in this game, but an appalling performance in the first half of the first leg in Madrid, along with chances squandered in the rematch, cost them all they had to give in the Champions League this term. On that day, things took an upturn after manager Jurgen Klopp brought on Thiago Alcantara in the place of Naby Keita just before halftime, and from that point on they were an equal rival in this clash at least, but the damage had already been done. They were 2-0 down, and the goal from Mohamed Salah which gave them brief hope was followed by Vinicius Junior’s second on the night to set the score which stood on aggregate for the rest of the tie.
Things would probably have been different had Salah managed to take the clear-cut chance he had in the second minute at Anfield, or had Thibaut Courtois failed to reach James Milner’s top-corner effort soon afterwards, but all such ifs and buts are now pointless, as Klopp himself admitted after the match.
Liverpool looked pretty good from the first whistle this time around, with Milner’s presence in midfield giving them a strong physical edge. They had more of the ball and kept it mostly in the opposition half. They made life very difficult for the 13-time European champions for large spells of the game, stifling the influence of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, so deadly in the first game, completely. Nathaniel Phillips put in a surprisingly good performance against Karim Benzema and showed signs of leadership, determination and desire to get the ball forward as quickly as possible.
And yet, in the end, it wasn’t enough. Georginio Wijnaldum and Roberto Firmino joined Salah and Milner in failing to score from promising situations, and the net behind Courtois remained undisturbed.
Liverpool will now turn their attention completely to the Premier League, where they are still involved in a desperate scramble for top four, and Leeds United, who they face at Elland Road on Monday.
Just enough from Real
Meanwhile, the visitors remained patient as expected, stepping onto the Anfield turf with a two-goal advantage and a clear plan. They defended well against a motivated opponent and looked for counterattacking opportunities. Their moments came and like Liverpool, they failed to take them – most notably in the second half when Alisson Becker denied Vinicius and Karim Benzema with a brilliant double save.
But unlike for Liverpool, Real’s wasted chances didn’t matter, given the advantage they had. Their only task was to weather the storm, and they did it. It was tough for Zinedine Zidane’s men from the start, and for about 80 minutes they were far from comfortable, but as the game entered the final 10, it became obvious that the Reds had lost belief they could score twice in the time that remained and their attacks became blunter with every attempt. Eder Militao and Nacho were once again excellent in the absence of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, topped arguably only by Courtois between the posts.
Looking at the full 180 minutes, Real certainly deserved to go through, doing just what they had to to see the Premier League champions off.
Real will also now turn, if only for a while, their focus on domestic affairs. Sitting one point behind table-toppers Atletico Madrid and one point above arch-rivals Barcelona, they have a good chance of defending their title; at any rate, better than they appeared to have until recently.
Can they go all the way?
That’s the million-dollar question right now. They have the quality, that much cannot be disputed. However, that can also be said of the rest of the semifinalists as well – you don’t get to this stage by accident.
Their next obstacle is Chelsea, who have been playing extremely well since appointing Thomas Tuchel at the head of the team in January. It’s still a steep hill to climb for the Spanish giants, bound to get even steeper if they reach the final. The clash of the financial titans in the other semi, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, is a mouthwatering prospect for the neutral lovers of the game whatever they may feel about their owners, and whoever wins that contest will be extremely difficult to beat for the trophy.
As for Real Madrid, they can hardly be described as favourites, but they are Real Madrid and cannot be lightly discarded from the race.
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