For Real Madrid and Liverpool, the Champions League has offered the possibility of a redemption after difficult and mediocre seasons. As it turned out, Real Madrid could somehow win La Liga after all, and they now have a clear advantage after the Champions League quarter-final first leg, which doubles as a ‘A repeat of the 2018 final. A score of 3-1 may not be quite the deciding factor, and Mohamed Salah’s away goal may be a source of hope for Liverpool in the second leg next week, but Madrid were by far the best team in Tuesday’s clash in the Spanish capital.
For Madrid, the pattern has become very familiar: a difficult group stage, followed by slow acceleration through knockouts as midfielder three of the battle-tested veterans Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić and Casemiro find their rhythm. That was enough to win three Champions League titles under Zinedine Zidane, and, with Madrid in the more open half of the group after the last draw, it could be enough to reach another final.
Considering how slow La Liga sides face top-level opposition this season, and given how shaken Madrid were by the Manchester City press last season, it was believed that the Spanish champion could be vulnerable. As it turned out, Liverpool couldn’t put a glove on Madrid before half-time, but instead found themselves stuck in their own half, desperately defending.
It’s not the Liverpool of the past two seasons. Injuries have hammered cohesion, especially in the center back, where he has used 18 different combinations this season. A couple of Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak is not the idea of an elite person. When he got a foothold Liverpool still have the firepower to trouble teams, as he showed against poor Arsenal on Sunday, but on Tuesday he never got into the game until he was 2 -0. He was too slow in possession and could never press, and the result was that the top three were barely involved.
Jürgen Klopp created a big surprise by leaving out Thiago Alcântara for Naby Keïta, but if the intention was for his racing power to disrupt Madrid, it was misplaced. Keïta gave the ball over and over again, while Kroos in particular had one of those flawless games in which he dominates the midfield without ever seeing a sweat. It was his long passes that led to the two goals before half-time, while Keïta was pulled for Thiago three minutes before the break.
First off, Kroos picked Vinicius Junior with a 50-yard pass. Moving from left to right, Vinicius ran between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Phillips, took the ball to his chest and finished with great fluidity.
The second was a long diagonal that Alexander-Arnold steered into the path of Marco Asensio, who flipped the ball over to Alisson, then pushed into the empty net. Liverpool were furious that Lucas Vasquez had fled with a barge on Sadio Mané during the preparation, but that incident was 27 seconds before the goal and in a different phase of play. It should have been given as a free kick, but was too far off goal for VAR to intervene.
There was a lot of debate about Alexander-Arnold’s omission from Gareth Southgate’s last English team, and it seemed like a game almost designed to explain his reservations about the right-back. Moving forward, Alexander-Arnold remains a great fullback, despite his poor form in the first half of this season, and he’s one of the Premier League’s best cruisers. But when Liverpool are on the back foot, when their front runs are limited, they are not a great defensive back and have been poorly exposed at times.
But the second half had a very different dynamic. Liverpool were able to climb higher on the pitch and as soon as they put pressure on the Madrid rearguard the home side looked shaky. After a first half in which Madrid were almost entirely dominant, Liverpool scored an away goal six minutes into the second, with Salah converting Gini Wijnaldum’s ball.
This Liverpool, however, are fundamentally not good enough at the back. Although the second half went from start to finish, the vital fourth goal went to Madrid. Much of this was due to Liverpool’s neglect of a throw-in defense, with Modrić dashing unmistakably into the box and feeding Vinicius to put his second (and only fourth in the Champions League) past Alisson. .
Liverpool came back from worse deficits than this against a Spanish side in the Champions League knockout stage, but there are big differences between that draw and the 3-0 comeback against Barcelona two years ago . At the time, the 3-0 gap never seemed representative of the difference between the teams in the first leg, and a much more confident and consistent Liverpool were heading to a noisy Anfield to try their return. And Madrid too, even despite his absence his First-choice center-backs Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane have offered no sign of being as flaky as Barca.