Real Madrid have been the bane of Liverpool in the Champions League in recent years, and they’ve rubber-stamped that status again this season. After the finals of 2018 and 2022, and the 2021 quarterfinals, the two teams were drawn to face each other in the round of 16 this time, and Real emerged triumphant again.
The job was practically done in the first leg, when they left Anfield with a three-goal advantage after winning 2-5, and the formality of booking a place in the quarterfinals has now been completed. On Tuesday, Real beat Liverpool 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu, courtesy of a 78th-minute goal by Karim Benzema.
A lively first half
Having come to try the impossible, Liverpool were probably happy with the way the game started. It was a lively affair from the start, dynamic and open, and it seemed that at any moment a goalkeeper would be seen plucking the ball from the inside of his net. However, both Thibaut Courtois and Alisson Becker, with a point to prove after a doing a howler each in the first leg, delivered performances worthy of their reputation of being among the best in the world.
Vinicius Junior, on one side, and Darwin Nunez on the other, were the ones to suffer from the excellence of the two shot-stoppers the most in the first half, and despite a number of chances at both ends of the pitch, the scoreline remained 0-0 when referee Felix Zwayer blew the halftime whistle.
Real in control
As the second half started and minutes slipped by, the already thin belief of Liverpool players in their ability to pull off another European miracle was thinning. Real gradually established full control of the game, and as Fede Valverde (twice) and Benzema each wasted a great chance to score, it became inevitable that if there was a goal to be scored, it would be scored by the home team again.
Liverpool, still struck by numerous injury absences (captain Jordan Henderson and Stefan Bajcetic have joined Thiago Alcantara, Luis Diaz, Arthur Melo and Calvin Ramsey in the treatment room), simply weren’t able to get anything concrete done in the attacking third. There were a few moments when they combined very well to start promising attacks, only to waste them at some point closer to Courtois’s goal. The most notable example happened in the 53rd minute, in the aftermath of Valverde’s first chance for Real, when Mohamed Salah broke through and sent his pass towards Nunez too short, giving Eder Militao the time to pick the ball up without problems.
Meanwhile, Real stuck to their plan. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were superb in the middle of the park, holding on to the ball and making smart choices, executed perfectly, completely resistant to anything the opposition tried towards taking possession for themselves. Playing alongside such great players, Eduardo Camavinga did not look out of place either.
The final nail in Liverpool’s coffin was delivered with 12 minutes left on the clock, as Camavinga tried to engage Benzema on the edge of the box. Virgil van Dijk reacted timely and poked the ball away from the French striker, but unfortunately from the point of view of the Liverpool defender, it fell to Vinicius inside the box. The Brazilian winger didn’t cover himself with glory at first, scuffing a first-time attempt as Van Dijk moved quickly to put pressure on him, but he still managed to get the ball back to Benzema somehow. Benzema was now unmarked at seven or eight yards from the goal and he made no mistake from there.
At that point, Liverpool ran out of the little energy they still had, and even this match escaped them, let alone the whole tie, and the inevitable triumph of Real Madrid in every way was complete.
Respect between great clubs
Many were confused when, after the final whistle, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” rang out in the stadium of Santiago Bernabeu. It sounded strange indeed, prompting many skeptics to call the gesture “banter”, rubbing salt on the wound.
However, as it turned out, the Liverpool anthem was played in response to Liverpool paying their respects to late Real icon Amancio, former player, coach and board of directors member for the Spanish giants, who passed away on the day of the first leg played at Anfield. During the song, most of the stadium stood up to applaud the 1800 fans who came to the Spanish capital to support Liverpool.
Liverpool are reportedly in for a summer of rebuild, and a number of players are expected to leave the club at the end of the season. For Roberto Firmino, whose departure has already been confirmed, this was the last Champions League game in a Liverpool shirt. Make no mistake, it’s an end of an era for the Merseyside club.
The same most probably goes for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner. Naby Keita didn’t even play, and he’s on his way out too.
As for Real, there is still some uncertainty over the futures of Modric and Kroos, but unlike their Liverpool counterparts, even if they end up leaving Madrid at the end of the season, they still have at least the quarterfinals to take part in.
Real face Barcelona at the weekend in what’s likely to prove a defining moment of the La Liga season, one way or the other. If they win, they’ll reduce the gap to six points and with 12 rounds to be played after that, it won’t be unrealistic for them to give it a go. But if they lose and the gap is increased to 12, that might as well be “all she wrote”.
Therefore, unless they win at the Camp Nou, it stands to reason to expect Real to put all their eggs in one basket and go for another Champions League trophy, No. 15, with all their might. In fact, coach Carlo Ancelotti seems to have already started playing mind games against Manchester City, another among the top favourites in the competition, and their manager Pep Guardiola.
Speaking at his post-match press conference, the Italian tactician openly declared that City were gifted a penalty in their game against RB Leipzig, setting the Premier League champions on their way to a 7-0 victory, and said that he had warned Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp to pay watch out for that when he takes his team to the Etihad on April 1st.
On the other hand, Liverpool only have the Premier League to worry about between now and the end of the season, and that will be a challenge enough as they strive to qualify for the Champions League again. Their decent effort in recent domestic games has been severely hampered by the defeat away to Bournemouth last week.
At the moment, they are in sixth place with 42 points, the same tally as Brighton in seventh, and the Seagulls gave a game in hand on them. Tottenham Hotspur are fourth with 48, with one game more played than Liverpool, and Newcastle are fifth with 44, with the same number of matches played as Brighton.
April will clearly be a defining month for Liverpool’s campaign. The City game, scheduled for the first of the month, will be followed by those against Chelsea away and at home against Arsenal, then away to Leeds, at home against Nottingham Forest, away to West Ham, and at eventually, at home against Spurs.
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