Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold were so optimistic. After the commendable – albeit imperfect – 2-0 win over Newcastle United at the weekend, Liverpool seemed confident their luck was changing.
Liverpool had endured several previous instances this season of winning games but then struggling to build momentum.
“This feels a little bit different,” Van Dijk said. Alexander-Arnold struck a similarly defiant tone.
But Jurgen Klopp’s men were brought crashing back to earth in brutal fashion on Tuesday, losing 5-2 to Real Madrid at Anfield in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
Let’s not forget, Madrid were arguably fortuitous 1-0 victors over Liverpool in last season’s final. But here, once Carlo Ancelotti’s side were on the scoreboard, this was pretty much all Madrid.
It wasn’t exactly plain sailing for Madrid, but they’re built differently. They’re a special case.
4 – Real Madrid are the first team to score four goals in a single away game against Liverpool in the history of European competitions. Overwhelming. #UCL pic.twitter.com/aXZPvs2lmZ
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 21, 2023
Eduardo Camavinga said it best in an interview with the Guardian earlier this week: “People think Madrid are dead, but Madrid are never, never dead.”
So when Liverpool rather astonishingly found themselves 2-0 up against the European champions inside 15 minutes, surely even the most ardent Reds fans had a twinge of trepidation deep in their minds.
Madrid have made a habit of seemingly coming back from the dead. Their route to glory last season had them resembling the undead in virtually every tie, with frankly absurd comebacks seeing them past Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City.
Lucky? Perhaps, but sometimes you create your own luck, whether that’s with individual quality or benefiting from individual errors.
There was a lot of both going on at Anfield on Tuesday.
Darwin Nunez’s opener was a delight. Making the run in behind the Madrid defence, he anticipated Mohamed Salah’s precise low pass and met it with an impudent flick of the right heel, the connection perfect as Thibaut Courtois was left helpless.
That was the sublime. Then came the ridiculous.
Courtois controlled a bouncing pass in his own area, but with Salah bearing down, the goalkeeper panicked. An accidental touch off his knee caused him to lose all control of the situation, and the Liverpool attacker duly prodded home.
The ground refused to swallow him up, forcing Courtois to cope with the very public violation of his dignity.
But nothing about the opening 15 minutes suggested Liverpool could count on a clean sheet. There were slips, spills and errors galore, the slick pitch proving rather hazardous for both sets of players.
As such, it wasn’t particularly surprising when Madrid did pull one back in the 21st minute with a moment of magic of their own.
After a quick interchange with Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior received the ball just inside the box. Seemingly surrounded, one drop of the shoulder opened up space and he somehow found the bottom-far corner.
While Liverpool chances continued to arrive, that incident felt like something of a turning point, and Alisson soon took some of the glare away from his goalkeeping counterpart.
Trying to play out from the back, his pass slammed straight against Vinicius’ leg and ricocheted into the net. Klopp emitted a wry chuckle.
22 – Aged 22 years and 224 days, Vinícius Júnior is the youngest visiting player to score twice against Liverpool at Anfield in major European competition since Johan Cruyff in December 1966 for Ajax in the European Cup (19y 233d). Historic. pic.twitter.com/II8AHGoRCO
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 21, 2023
Suddenly it became a contest of who would respond better to such a setback. Madrid already showed their impressive hand – could Liverpool match them?
The answer was ultimately unequivocal.
Liverpool were again their own worst enemies at the start of the second half. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez failed to deal with Vinicius legally, the latter deemed to have fouled him on the left edge of the box.
Liverpool’s defence lined up across the edge of the six-yard box. So bad was the defending here that Luka Modric didn’t even try to put his delivery behind them, instead in front where Eder Militao – incredibly unmarked – was allowed to simply head home.
By now, the intensity Liverpool had shown during the first half was nowhere to be seen. At times Madrid looked like they’d struggle to give up possession even on purpose. The Reds were drained physically and emotionally – Los Blancos could smell blood.
The young Stefan Bajcetic was the next Liverpool player to commit a major error. Robbed of the ball in midfield, within seconds Madrid had the ball in the net again, the previously quiet Benzema seeing his rather tame left-footed effort deflect in off Joe Gomez.
But the fifth and final goal was all about Madrid’s quality. Modric rolled back the years with a surging run before finding Vinicius, who showcased his ever-improving decision-making as he lured in the defender prior to slipping through to Benzema. He deceived three – including Alisson – with one swivel with the hips before effortlessly picking out the top-left corner.
5 – This has been Real Madrid’s second Champions League game with the highest difference (+3.34) between their goals (5) and expected goals (1.66) since 2013/14 (+3.38 vs Viktoria Plzen in November 2018). Punch. pic.twitter.com/up490er8V9
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 21, 2023
Klopp referred to last season’s Champions League final defeat to Madrid as “proper torture” – if that’s an apt description, then it’ll be intriguing to see how he labels this.
The Reds went from looking sensational to immensely fragile within about five minutes, and against Ancelotti’s seasoned winners, that’s never going to be a recipe for success.
This was the first time Liverpool have ever conceded five goals at home in Europe – it was simultaneously a harsh reality check and a grim reminder of how far they’ve fallen in less than a year.
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