What had struck Jürgen Klopp most vividly on Sunday when he finally watched a re-run of last season’s Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid was the streetwise conviction that the Spanish team showed; how they did not panic during the low moments, how they knew they would find a way.
Madrid dug a hole for themselves here, shipping two early goals – the second after a terrible goalkeeping blunder by Thibaut Courtois. It felt as though this last 16, first-leg tie could be about to slip away from them. And yet they barely blinked.
Instead, it was Liverpool who fell apart at the first sign of turbulence, which came after a first goal of the evening for their nemesis, Vinícius Júnior. It was the 21st minute and the extent of the home team’s collapse thereafter laid bare the fault lines that have framed a difficult season.
Liverpool had entered with their tails up after the Premier League wins over Everton and Newcastle. As they wrestle with a transitional period, with problems in midfield and beyond, the hope was that they could locate an ignition point. “Life is about timing and maybe we have found our feet again,” Klopp said beforehand.
The reality was that their supporters were left to watch through their fingers, Klopp’s players taking leave of their defensive senses, seemingly forgetting the basics. The collective confidence is brittle and, in the face of a litany of individual errors, it cracked.
Alisson was at fault for Vinícius’s equaliser on 36 minutes, trying to be a bit too cute with a clearance and sending it straight at the Madrid forward. The ball ricocheted off Vinícius and looped into the net. He did not know much about that but he was across everything else during a virtuoso performance.
It was Vinícius who got the only goal in last season’s final; it was him that scored twice in Madrid’s 3-1 aggregate win over Liverpool in the quarter-final of 2020-21. Now this.
The second half would turn into a procession for Madrid, their superiority – and Liverpool’s travails – emphasised when Luka Modric sprinted through a nonexistent midfield, having won the ball off Fabinho and left Stefan Bajcetic in his wake. Modric did not look his 37 years. He found Vinícius, who squared for Karim Benzema and, at that point, it felt as though the centre-forward wanted to toy with Liverpool.
Benzema checked, putting Alisson on the floor, and he took his time, revelling in the moment, wanting to string it out. He knew that he was about to score, despite there being a few red shirts close by. Eventually he swept home.
That made it 5-2 and it was Benzema’s second. Éder Militão had made it 3-2 after Liverpool froze inside the six-yard box on a Modric free-kick, caught out by a simple run, but it was a gruesome job to rake over all of the concessions. Benzema’s first was a scuffed shot that Alisson looked to have covered before it deflected off Joe Gomez, who had an evening when nothing went right.
Carlo Ancelotti, the Madrid manager, once of Milan, knows that a three-goal lead over Liverpool is no guarantee of victory. And yet it felt ridiculous to invoke the famous Istanbul final of 2005. This tie is surely over. The same could be said of Liverpool’s season.
Real are the reigning Spanish and European champions; the World Club champions, too, having beaten Al-Hilal in Morocco ten days previously. Klopp probably has a few extra ways to describe them and the history that his Liverpool team have with them was an unavoidable subplot – not just the two most recent defeats but the one in the 2018 final, too.
Ancelotti was bold with his lineup, including Rodrygo on the right wing which meant Federico Valverde in midfield. But it was Klopp’s team who found a way at the outset, the opening goal marked by a clutch of eye-catching contributions. Bajcetic controlled a breaking ball and volleyed wide for Jordan Henderson, who fed Mohamed Salah up the right, and his low cross was a beauty. Darwin Núñez finished with a spectacular trailing leg flick.
Courtois was a helpless bystander. Soon afterwards, he was hapless and beside himself. The goalkeeper knew what he wanted to do when he addressed a Dani Carvajal back pass with Salah in attendance. His brain told him to play it out with his left foot. But somewhere there was a crossed wire. Courtois’s right knee intervened and the ball just squirted away from him, straight to Salah, for whom the finish was easy.
Salah had been rampant in the early going. At 1-0, moments after Virgil van Dijk had made an important block to deny Rodrygo, Salah ran at David Alaba and seemed to ghost through him. Ignoring Núñez in the middle, he dragged wide of the near post. Alaba would soon be forced off. Salah had twisted him in every direction.
Madrid stayed cool, Modric stabilising them in possession. And when Vinícius struck out of nothing, Fabinho and Gomez giving him the room to shape a curler into the far corner, the script was about to be turned upside down.
Real just about kept out Salah then Núñez in a scramble before, at the other end, Alisson pushed away another Vinícius curler. It was a fine save. The goalkeeper’s descent to zero was shuddering and Liverpool would need an Andy Robertson intervention in front of Rodrygo to enter half-time at 2-2. The less said about the second half from a Liverpool point of the view, the better.