Real Madrid displayed class in a convincing 5-2 victory against Liverpool in their round-of-16 Champions League first leg at Anfield on Tuesday night. Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior each scored twice.
Liverpool Couldn’t Hold On
Anfield was filled with a sense of grim forbearance as Liverpool’s fans watched in frustration as their team was dismantled by Real Madrid. For about an hour on Tuesday night, the supporters had watched with bated breath as Liverpool’s team threw away a two-goal lead in the first half.
Despite urging on Jürgen Klopp’s players, Liverpool’s fate was sealed as Real Madrid made it 3-2, then 4-2, and finally 5-2. This was a loss turning into a rout, and Liverpool was enduring the most chastening evening in their illustrious European history. The crowd remained stoic as they witnessed the collapse of their season, a season that had promised so much but was now slipping away.
Madrid’s Passing Sparkled
However, the passing game that Real Madrid played in the final minutes of the match was the final straw. As the game wound down and the crowd started to thin out just a little, Real Madrid decided to indulge in a little game of keep-away. They slipped passes between, beside, and around their bedraggled opponents. They offered them a glimpse of the ball and then spirited it away at the last moment. They maintained it for a minute or two, Liverpool’s players lolling and lagging as they dashed around in hopeless pursuit.
It was an indignity too far. It is one thing being beaten – particularly by Real Madrid – and it is quite another being taunted. The crowd started to whistle and then to jeer, at Real Madrid, at its own players, chasing at shadows, at this whole long, damned, miserable season. The sound of the crowd’s frustration and disappointment echoed throughout Anfield, a stadium that had seen so many triumphant moments, but now felt nothing but despair.
All Too Frequent Comebacks
Real Madrid’s ability to stage a miraculous comeback has become a hallmark of Carlo Ancelotti’s team. This season, they have streamlined the process to such an extent that they can achieve a turnaround in no more than half an hour, taking a break in the middle for a quick bite to eat.
This mastery of the comeback was on full display during their European glory last season, where they generally required the full span of a two-legged tie, up to and including extra time in the second leg, to stage the comeback.
Fall From Greatness
What was more striking about Liverpool’s defeat on Tuesday was not only the fact of their loss, but the manner in which it occurred. Somewhere deep inside the Liverpool team is the muscle memory of what it once was, a team that was at the peak of its form not too long ago.
It was only nine months ago when Liverpool played in its third Champions League final in five years. Klopp was so confident in his team’s ability that he advised its fans to book their hotel rooms for this year’s showpiece, even in defeat. The fall from grace has been rapid, and this defeat felt like a final blow to their already struggling season.
An Unprecedented Decline
The effects of Liverpool’s decline were all there on the field, displayed for everyone to see. Less than a year ago, Liverpool could have regarded themselves as equals to their opponents, but the gulf now is wide. While it is tempting to focus on the major mistakes made by Liverpool – Alisson’s misjudgment for the second goal, the stationary marking for the third, Joe Gomez’s body shape for the fourth – the little things are even more telling.
The difference in Liverpool’s game is noticeable in the speed with which they pass the ball. It is just a touch slower than before. The spaces between the players are a little too large, and the cohesion between the lines is now ever so slightly ragged. Even the intensity of their press has diminished, and its effectiveness has been reduced.
All these elements work in unison to erode the team’s confidence and purpose until the entire system seems fractured beyond repair. It is at this point that Real Madrid, with their air of total self-assurance, started to pass the ball around. Liverpool’s players were powerless to stop them, with their fall from the rarefied heights they once shared with their opponents now complete.
Klopp, upon reviewing last year’s final for the first time this week, commented that it was a game his team could have won. However, now it is apparent that Liverpool has lost much of the flair and skill that once made them contenders on the field.