Having beaten them in the 2018 final and the 2021 quarterfinals, and then again in the final of 2022, Real Madrid have proven to be the Champions League bane of Liverpool once more by coming back from two goals down to win convincingly in the first leg of the round-of-16 clash between the two European heavyweights.
A smartly flicked finish by Darwin Nunez broke the deadlock in the fourth minute and Mohamed Salah pounced on a mistake by Real goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to double the home side’s lead 10 minutes later, but Vinicius Junior pulled a fine strike back for Los Blancos in the 21st and Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker returned Courtois’s favour with a howler of his own in the 36th, seeing his pass blocked by Vinicius bounce into the net for an equalizer. Real turned the game around completely straight after the break as Eder Militao took advantage of a brilliantly taken but poorly defender set-piece from Luka Modric. Karim Benzema got lucky with a deflection in the 55th minute, but only skill played a part when he expertly finished a swift counterattack in the 67th to set the final score at 2-5.
Another Liverpool miracle unlikely
The main question now is, of course, is the tie over? Have Real secured a place in the next round at Liverpool’s expense again already, or is there a chance for the Merseysiders to stage another historic comeback in this competition?
Frankly, this Liverpool team doesn’t look capable of pulling off miracles anymore. Gone are the days when they were able to turn large deficits around even against the best teams out there – their fans will never forget Istanbul in 2005, or the thrashing of Lionel Messi’s Barcelona at Anfield in 2019. Manager Jurgen Klopp once described his team as “mentality monsters”; now their mentality appears to be made of glass.
Klopp himself acknowledged after the game that the overall battle is lost, adding that his team would go to Madrid in three weeks to try and win the game there and take it from there. But he certainly didn’t express any genuine hope that his team has what it takes to overturn the tie. He simply pointed out that they need to score three goals at the Santiago Bernabeu, which means taking plenty of risk against a team extremely dangerous on the counterattack.
The Real mentality
For all the criticism at Liverpool’s expense after this game, the ability of this Real Madrid team to repeatedly come back practically from the dead is unrivaled. Last season, they were written off by most in each knockout round before going on to lift the Champions League trophy for the 14th time.
They lost the first leg of the round of 16 1-0 away to Paris Saint-Germain and beat the Ligue 1 giants in Madrid by 3-1. They saw their 1-3 victory over Chelsea in the first leg of the quarterfinals overturned as Chelsea took a 0-3 lead in Madrid, before scoring twice to progress. They were beaten 4-3 by Manchester City at the Etihad in the first leg of the semifinals and went 0-1 down in Madrid, before going on to win 3-1. Many saw Liverpool as the favourites to win the final, and to be fair, the Reds did dominate the most of its course, but Courtois produced an incredible goalkeeping performance and Vinicius gave just a glimpse of his deadliness on the counter to score the only goal.
Time and again they rise to the occasion in the Champions League, and this time they really did it in style, becoming the first team ever to score five goals against Liverpool at Anfield in a European competition.
The game Real Madrid play is rarely pretty; this isn’t a team capable of enjoying 85% of possession and creating chance after chance. But they’ve certainly gotten the maximum out of everything they have – vast experience, sublime quality of several individuals, a mountain of confidence, and the impeccable tactical guidance of Carlo Ancelotti, one of the most successful coaches football has ever seen.
All the other problems plaguing Liverpool right now aside, their biggest problem ahead of the second leg is the identity of their opponents, the unbreakable mentality of Real Madrid.
Important Liverpool goals drowned in failure
The goal Nunez scored was not only brilliant, but it was a moment that was supposed to announce the fulfillment of a wide-spread prophecy, with a number of experts believing the Uruguayan attacker will eventually become a goal-machine due to his formidable ability to get into scoring positions. All he usually lacks is finishing, and this was a finish as good as they come. Had the game ended differently, this goal, against Real Madrid, would likely have sped his progress up significantly.
Meanwhile, the goal Salah scored, his 42nd for Liverpool in the Champions League, has made the Egyptian the club’s record scorer in Europe, surpassing the tally of 41 previously held as a record by the iconic Steven Gerrard.
But just like with Nunez’s potential shackle-breaker, Salah’s landmark strike has been bereft of glory by the hammering their team suffered in this match.
Vinicius, Modric, Benzema
Speaking after the game, Ancelotti was full of praise for his players.
“Vinicius is the most decisive player in the world,” he said. “There is no one like him. He’s been incredible again tonight for us.”
“The veterans are crucial for us. Kroos, Benzema and Modric lead the whole squad”.
There wasn’t much for Toni Kroos to do, having come on three minutes before the 90 were up, but Vinicius, Benzema and Modric were certainly the main driving force behind Real Madrid’s triumph in the Anfield heat. Vinicius packs incredible pace, dribbling and shooting skills, making him the perfect weapon for a counterattacking setup, while the enormous experience at the very top of the game, and the know-how that comes with that, come to the light whenever Modric or Benzema play in a big game.
Looking at up and down the names of the Real squad, it’s a perfectly blended mixture of youth, vast talent and experience. There may come a day when Modric and Benzema need replacing and that will prove a difficult task, but for the time being, the two veterans are delivering everything their reputation warrants. The fact that Anfield applauded them after the game speaks volumes, and if they end up lifting the No. 15 at the end of the season, it will be deserved.
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