Somewhere around the 70th minute, Jurgen Klopp came rushing down the touchline to break up a developing face-off between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Vinicius Junior. The Liverpool manager was furiously bellowing at his own man whilst holding up a placative palm towards the Brazilian.
Like a parent trying to get his misbehaving child home before they cause any more damage, Klopp was no doubt feeling that, somehow, despite everything, Real Madrid were not out of sight at 3-1 and if he could just escape roughly as things were, it was a situation he could deal with.
He said as much after the game, telling BT Sport: “We didn’t deserve a lot more tonight, but that one goal, second half, was absolutely ok, and it gives us, at least, kind of a lifeline.”
It was instructive of how this game had gone that it was Vinicius and Alexander-Arnold squaring up, as each had as much impact on their own side’s fortunes on the night as anyone.Embed from Getty Images
Moments earlier, Vinicius had ended Liverpool’s brightest period of the match with a sucker-punch third for the hosts, his second, in the 65th minute, and almost set up another immediately after, leaving Klopp on the side-line looking dumbstruck at what was unfolding before him.
Alexander-Arnold, suddenly the poster boy for Liverpool’s collapse this season thanks to the curious culture war that has sprung up around his omission from the recent England squad, had epitomised a personal and collective disaster of a first half.
In the 36th minute he headed a Toni Kroos ball over the top straight into the path of Marco Asensio who lifted it over Alisson and tapped in to give Real a two-goal lead.Embed from Getty Images
Captain on the night, Gini Wijnaldum tried to downplay the error later, saying: “I don’t want to say that it was a present, because he still had to make the goal, but that was typical for the first half.”
Coming in, both sides’ respective underwhelming seasons made it easy to forget this was a clash between the reigning champions of England and Spain, but while Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Arsenal at the weekend restored life to their hopes of a top-four finish, Real have put together an unbeaten run of 11 which leaves them just three points behind La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid. And the gulf in confidence showed.
With Raphael Varane missing with Covid and captain Sergio Ramos injured, Zinedine Zidane still switched to a back four after the weekend’s victory over Eibar, but Liverpool barely tested the makeshift line-up of Nacho and Eder Militao in the middle, with Ferland Mendy and Lucas Vazquez at full back, so unable were they to get a foothold in the first half.Embed from Getty Images
By contrast, Liverpool’s depleted back-four were given a terrible time. Mendy had already skipped inside Alexander-Arnold to let Vinicius head narrowly wide when Kroos looked up from deep under no pressure at all in the 27th minute. His long pass split Nat Phillips and the embattled right back, allowing Vinicius to control perfectly on his chest without breaking stride and finish to put Real ahead.
The Brazilian had only scored once in his last 31 appearances before his brace here, but it was that sort of game for Liverpool.
Despite the confidence boost of easily dispatching Arsenal, the timid and brittle Liverpool that saw their title defence evaporate since the new year was on display again in Madrid, and they threatened to implode entirely after Alexander-Arnold’s error had put them two down.
Sadio Mane was booked for, not unreasonably, complaining he had been fouled by Vazquez just before the goal, although this came not long after Real could easily have had a penalty when Ozan Kabak tangled with Karim Benzema. In contrast to the over-eager officiating that robbed Jude Bellingham of a goal in the night’s other game, the officials let various challenges slide.Embed from Getty Images
Naby Keita suffered the indignity of being replaced by Thiago Alcantara before half time. Klopp admitted it was tactical and said: “I could have done a few more changes in that moment, but thank God I didn’t.”
Kabak then emulated Alexander-Arnold by skewing a back-pass straight to Asensio. Klopp had his hands on his head in despair, but the Spaniard could not add to the lead.
Klopp said of the sloppiness after: “These are mistakes that can happen. I wasn’t happy with the way we played football when we were in possession.”
They had barely had any possession to play with until a noticeable reaction after half time. The crucial away goal that seemed so fanciful in the first half arrived six minutes after the restart when Wijnaldum went on a driving run through the midfield before finding Diogo Jota who feinted inside Militao and lined up for a shot.Embed from Getty Images
Although Luka Modric half-blocked the attempt, it squirmed through to Mohamed Salah who just about managed to get it under control to play it off Thibaut Courtois’ outstretched arm and the underside of the bar.
For a 15-minute spell thereafter the Liverpool of old appeared to have materialised, pressing high, throwing themselves into blocks in defence, and Alexander-Arnold back where we all expect him, midway inside the opposition half swinging teasing crosses into the box. He even thwarted a two-on-one Madrid attack, something he will hope Gareth Southgate noted, after a goal-saving block from Mendy had denied Mane an unlikely equaliser.
Vinicius’ second, a snapshot through Phillips’ legs that Alisson should have done better with after Modric was given the run of the Liverpool area to stroll through and find him, actually came against the run of play, but it quelled the Liverpool uprising.Embed from Getty Images
Alexander-Arnold would eventually get a booking through interaction with Vinicius, not for the foul that was given when his tormentor went down under little contact, but for letting out all the frustration from this chastening night, screaming into the face of the assistant referee.
Klopp summed it up afterwards, saying: “If you want to go to the semi-finals you have to earn the right to do so. We didn’t do that tonight.”
Real are far from the side who lifted their last Champions League trophy in the previous meeting between these two sides, but their veteran playmakers Kroos and Modric both registered assists, and they have a clear path to the semi-finals despite being nobody’s favourites.
They have done this before, although the small matter of El Clasico at the weekend could play a role.Embed from Getty Images
Liverpool are currently even further from the team that overturned that three-goal deficit against Barcelona on the way to their most recent triumph, but Salah’s goal, which came from their lone shot on target, leaves them with a chance they scarcely deserve.
Of course, on that night at Anfield, where Alexander-Arnold was hailed as a genius with the quickly taken corner, they were building a formidable unbeaten home run and were roared on by a packed Kop. When they return to Anfield for the second leg next week, it will be empty, and filled with the doubt of six consecutive defeats before Saturday’s visit of Aston Villa.
They have done this before too, but it certainly looks unlikely this time.
To read the on-the-whistle match report of this game click here.