How else to describe Real Madrid’s utter dismantling of Liverpool (at Anfield no less) and continuing domination of the Reds than to resort to two well worn soccer cliches: a) The 2-0 lead is the most dangerous in football and b) it’s not how you start the game but how you finish that counts.
Liverpool started off to a flying start, deploying their customary and speedy high press. Minutes into the game, as Liverpool’s forward Dario Nunez made a diagonal run in the box, and a microsecond before the ball arrived, he lept into the air pushing off of his left leg before flicking Mo Salah’s cross elegantly with his trailing right foot. The cheeky finish skipped past a stunned Courtois for the 1-0 lead. Before the 15 minute mark, the usually unflappable Courtois made an unaccustomed gaffe while handling a back pass. As he tried to control the high bouncing ball, it went off of his knee straight to the onrushing Salah, who made no mistake and fired it past Courtois for the 2-0 goal lead.
Liverpool had their flying start. The fans at the KOP were fired up. Surely this was the beginning that coach Jurgen Klopp had hoped for.
But what makes Real Madrid the great club that it is, the club that has won the most European championship trophies of all time (20 including 14 Champions), the most trophies of all time (97), is their utter unflappability. This is a team that is not faced by a deficit of any kind, at any stage. The most recent evidence of that resiliency was their comeback against Manchester City in last year’s semi-finals, when they overcame an early deficit to City in the first leg to crawl back within one goal before finishing off Pep’s fine team in the second leg.
On this night they were playing with heavy hearts as one of the club’s greats,Amancio, had passed on the day previous to the match. After a one minute of silence observance before kickoff, the Merengues did not appear to be fully concentrated on the game at hand. But all of that changed once they started to get possession, once Liverpool handed them the ball, seemingly content with the 2-0 lead (see point a) above). In the 21s minute Vinny “Flash” Jr. scored against his Brazilian teammate Alison with a beautiful curling shot to the far post. Taking the ball on the left, Vinny used his signature exquisite control and explosiveness to free himself from multiple defenders in a tight space at the corner of the box before unleashing the kick that would spark the comeback. Vinny created the yard of space seemingly out of nothing and that’s all this incredible player ever needs.
Liverpool, still in the game, almost scored five minutes later but Darwin Nunez was denied at the goal line by Carvajal. A couple of moments later, Vinny almost scored from the same place as his first goal, but this time Alison made a fine diving save to deny his countryman.
Fifteen minutes later, Vinny would again score off of a mistake by Alison. Fielding a back pass and also feeling the pressure from his fellow Brazilian Vinicius, Alison opted for a hard clearance to the right straight into the path of the pressing Real Madrid player instead of either cutting the ball back hard to his left (where he would have easily faked out Vinicius, who had turned his back) or simply booting it hard to his left. Instead the poorly kicked clearance bounced off of Viny’s leg and straight into the goal for the 2-2 tie. Jurgen Klopp could be seen clapping, as if urging his team to not lose its head, still enthusiastic about his team’s chances.
Madrid almost made it 3-2 at the stroke of halftime with Courtois throwing a 40 yard pass to Valverde who found Vinicius who crossed into Rodrygo. Only Andy Robertson’s fine diving clearance saved the day. The play was indicative of Madrid’s never say die attitude and also of their willingness to stick a dagger into an opponent at any point in the game. Having come back from down 0-2 to tie the game, a third goal at the end of the half would have been devastating to Liverpool. That, unfortunately for the Liverpool faithful, would occur sooner than they would have hoped.
If Liverpool had the dream start at the beginning of the game, Madrid turned the tables in the second half. The Merengues won a free kick from the left-edge of the box in the 47th minute and as Modric stood poised to take it, Eder Militao ran across the goalie box and met Luka‘s perfectly placed kick. Not a single Liverpool defender tracked him and Militao was left all alone to drill the ball powerfully into the back of the net. As the Madrid players celebrated in utter jubilation by the corner flag, the Liverpool players looked on the scene stunned. Alison and van Dijk had a look of incredulity. Klopp was no longer clapping; he just looked nervous and worried.
Just 8 minutes later, Real Madrid recovered the ball at the edge of Liverpool’s box. Benzema and Vinicius worked a beautiful 1-2 in a tight space. As Benzema received the return pass he fired a shot that deflected off of Joe Gomez and into the back of the net. In the 67th minute, after an errant pass in the midfield, Modric picked off the ball and dribbled the ball upfield at high speed, eluding and shaking off would-be defenders before passing it ahead to Vinicius, who after attracting two defenders, pushed it ahead to Benzema. The Frenchman coolly eluded the onrushing Alison and placed the ball into the back of the net for the Merengue’s fifth unanswered goal.
One final observation of this play is warranted. Liverpool’s 18 year old midfielder, Stefan Bajčetić, was victimized on this play by Modric. To Bajčetić’s defense, he didn’t lose the ball in midfield to Modric (that was Fabhino), but it was him who had the enviable job of trying to stop the player who is almost 20 years his senior. Unable to stop him in mid-run (Modric shook him off like an American Football running back using a stiff-arm), he trailed the play for a bit as the other Liverpool defenders were mesmerized by the passing and movement of Real’s troika but after all of the work he had put in the game, he gave up on the play at the very end. He could have tried to stop Benzema but he simply watched as Karem finished the play. I’m sure this will not go unnoticed by Klopp, but the young Bajčetić is the least likely player to shoulder blame. Gomez, Fabinho and van Dijk also had terrible performances.
Liverpool’s defense looked haphazard and disorganized the entire second half, as if they were chasing shadows in white shirts. At the end, when Benzema’s shot had struck the back of the net, Liverpool’s players looked on helplessly and with the knowledge that their Champion’s League run had ended on this night after being vanquished by the winningest soccer club team of all time.
Real Madrid has won 7 straight UCL games against Liverpool, dating back to 2014. This includes two UCL finals.
On paper, Real Madrid is the the team with the most trophies ever (see the reference below), but in my opinion, they are not the greatest club of all time. That distinction belongs to Barcelona. The reasons why I believe this will be addressed in a future post.