Real Madrid took a major step towards the semi-finals of the Champions League with a 3-1 first leg win over Liverpool at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.
Vinicius Junior was Liverpool’s chief tormentor, punishing basic errors from a visiting side that employed a high line without any pressure on the ball and seemed to lack the basic organization required to repel the pace of the Madrid frontline. After the Brazilian ghosted in behind to net a first in the 27th minute, Trent Alexander-Arnold miscued a clearing header to allow Marco Asensio to creep in behind, lobbing Alisson and tapping into an empty net.
For a time early in the second half Liverpool looked like being a force in the contest and Mohamed Salah’s thundering strike in off the crossbar gives them something to cling on to ahead of next Wednesday’s second leg even if a second goal for Vinicius means it will require an almighty effort at Anfield if Jurgen Klopp’s side are to qualify for the last four.
Toni Kroos could scarcely have dreamed of a more ideal approach from an opponent in what seemed certain to be a serious test of Real’s quality under pressure. Yet Liverpool’s customary intensity without the ball was nowhere to be seen whilst at the same time Ozan Kabak and Nathaniel Phillips maintained an extremely high defensive line.
Without sufficient recovery pace and with Kroos and Luka Modric given time to look up, pick a pass, check their phone, write a few tweets and have a think about what they’d do for dinner tomorrow it was a recipe for disaster. The former in particular was devastating with his deliveries over the top, none more so than one he dropped on Vinicius’ chest for the opening goal. The young Brazilian still had plenty of work to do but his first touch was perfect, his finish quick enough that Alisson Becker was caught in no man’s land between his line and the ball.
Even after Asensio’s goal Liverpool seemed incapable of learning their lesson and were lucky to end up with only three conceded, Trent Alexander-Arnold not quite making up for his error even as he killed a counter attack in the 64th minute. The visitors simply would not learn and sat off Madrid in the following passage of play, allowing Modric to slip the ball into Vinicius as the hosts netted a third.
For all that the tie seems over, Liverpool under Klopp have overcome worse, a 3-0 first leg deficit to Barcelona being overturned in front of a raucous Anfield in the 2019 semi-finals. They will not have a packed Kop on their side next Wednesday but they will have an away goal in their back pocket after Diogo Jota teed up Salah to rifle the ball in off the crossbar, capping off what was arguably the only impressive period of play the visitors mustered in Madrid.
Klopp was far from impressed.” If you want to play in a semi-finals you have to earn the right to do so, we didn’t do that tonight especially in the first half. The only good thing I can say about the game apart from we scored the goal is it’s only the first half. We just didn’t play good enough football.”
Klopp was at pains to point out the issue was not so much the mistakes Liverpool made for the goals – “those are mistakes that can happen” – but the lapses in possession and failure to craft much in the first half in particular, which saw him withdraw Naby Keita before the interval and introduce Thiago.
“It’s a big story and I don’t like it anymore,” said Klopp. “He was not the only one… It was tactical but I could have done a few more changes in that moment.”
Introducing Thiago worked, offering Liverpool a greater ability to control things in the final third, but begged the question why Klopp so swiftly broke up the team that had ripped a poor Arsenal to shreds on Saturday. If the Reds are to overcome a two goal deficit next week they will need to keep Madrid pinned in their half and Thiago will be crucial in doing that.