Liverpool needed a miracle against Real Madrid and miracles have happened to them before in this competition. But this time they failed to catch light.
It was always somewhat unlikely, wasn’t it? Coming from three behind to beat Barcelona in 2019 was a sensational achievement, but even that came in front of a baying home crowd and against a team which had lost from three goals up a year earlier. And while what happened in Istanbul in 2005 might have been the most remarkable comeback in the history of the European Cup final, that came in a final against a Milan team who’d managed to convince themselves by half-time that they’d already won.
But this was different. This was against the old masters of European football, and on their patch. Real Madrid don’t soil themselves in public in the way that the Barcelona team of the end of the last decade did. They’re disciplined enough not to let them start believing that a job is done when it’s actually only half-done.
And Liverpool arrived at the Bernabeu in a dramatically Jekyll & Hydesque frame of mind, having followed up the result of a lifetime against Manchester United, with all its ‘LIVERPOOL ARE BACK’ implications, by losing to Bournemouth in a manner of Sideshow Bob on a lawn covered in garden rakes. These were two performances in less than six days that looked as though they were played by two completely different teams.
Liverpool needed something remarkable, but by half-time they were no closer to overturning Real’s advantage than they had been at kick-off. When you’ve won the competition you’re competing in six times, the concept of ‘damage limitation’ becomes somewhat redundant. You have to go for it, and run the gamut of whatever risks come with making that commitment.
Diogo Jota was added to the front three of Salah, Nunez and Gakpo. And they did create chances in an open first half. Inside seven minutes Darwin Nunez got through in the right-hand channel and had his shot blocked by the feet of Thibaut Courtois. What might have happened had that gone in? Might it have been the moment to finally crack that famous Madridista sangfroid?
But there were also gaps at the back, the upshot of which was that Alisson was called upon to be at his absolute best as well, blocking from Vinicius Junior and flicking a deflected shot from Eduardo Camavinga onto the crossbar, while Luka Modric also shot narrowly over. Madrid dominated possession for twenty minutes, controlling the rhythm of the game and picking off half-chances. They didn’t really need to do anything other than not collectively lose their minds.
But as the game settled down after its frantic first 25 minutes, the balance of play shifted slightly. Nunez brought a decent save from Courtois. Gakpo forced another save, just a couple of minutes later. This might have been Mission: Implausible, but it wasn’t Mission: Impossible quite yet. Goalless at half-time. No closer to beginning the great escape, but no further away either.
Roberto Firmino and Harvey Elliott were introduced after ten minutes of Liverpool continuing to fail to catch light. Passes were overhit. Movement felt somewhat stilted. Real Madrid continued to feel in control of proceedings, with enough about them to avoid that element of jeopardy that might finally get their opponents playing.
It goes without saying that this tie was lost in the first leg. Liverpool were blown away by those five goals in 46 minutes at Anfield, and the margin of Real Madrid’s win in that match shaped the feel of this second leg. It’s feeling of assured control over proceedings that has been missing from Liverpool for much of this season.
Liverpool have oscillated wildly between excellent and terrible this season, and those flashes of excellence – they’ve scored at least seven goals in three different matches this season – were enough to sustain that tiny flicker of belief that somehow or other this could be rescued. But ultimately in Madrid they ran headlong into an extended hand. There was nothing flashy or extravagant about Real’s performance, it’s more than everything was just extremely finely-tuned. The passing was just that little bit crisper. The movement was just that little bit better.
And as the game moved into its closing stages, the puff went out of it. Chances became thinner on the ground, and where they did show themselves they were almost entirely concentrated upon the Liverpool goal. Valverde headed narrowly wide. Benzema shot narrowly over. Liverpool continued to bustle; no heat and very little light. If Jurgen Klopp had told his team to go out and put in 45 minutes of blood and thunder, there were no signs of it actually coming to pass.
With twelve minutes to play, Karim Benzema scored a scrappy goal to put any further doubts regarding the outcome of the tie out of the question. 1-0 on the night, 6-2 on aggregate. And in stoppage time at the end of the game, with the tie already long gone, there was still time for a lengthy VAR intervention before that referee finally decided that no, the ball bouncing up at an improbable angle to hit Kostas Tsimikas’s arm did not constitute what would have been the most futile penalty kick of all-time. Real Madrid had to settle for just the four-goal aggregate win in the end.
There’s only one chase on now for the rest of Liverpool’s season now, and it’s uphill. They remain six points from a Champions League place for next season, and a failure to get there would come at a not-insignificant cost. Liverpool already have to run like hamsters on a wheel in order to keep up with the financial largesse of some of those around them in the Premier League, and missing out on the vast amounts of money that come from qualification would be a substantial financial hit.
Furthermore, it doesn’t do their loftier ambitions much good if they can’t offer Champions League football next season. Jude Bellingham is one of the most sought-after players in Europe at the moment, and it has been previously suggested that Liverpool have a decent chance of persuading him to Anfield. It remains to be seen whether a failure to be able to offer competition at the very highest level may not completely torpedo their chances of bringing in such a prospect, but it can hardly be said that it would do them much good.
Who can stop Real Madrid? Just how good are Napoli? Are Chelsea about to revisit their unlikely deep run of 2021? Can the two Milan clubs rediscover some muscle memory from their golden years? Is it Manchester City’s turn to finally come good on all those surprisingly plump sponsorship contracts? It certainly won’t be Liverpool this season, and they now have a tough job to even qualify for next year’s iteration of the Champions League. This was always an impossible mission, but Liverpool didn’t really click into gear, and you suspect that they might all feel relieved just to have got this out of the way.