Liverpool will have to produce another Champions League knockout stage comeback against Spanish giants after a chaotic and ill-disciplined display saw them lose 3-1 to Real Madrid.
Jurgen Klopp’s team famously came from 3-0 down to beat Barcelona in the semi-final on their way to winning a sixth European Cup two years ago and the task in the last-eight second leg at home is likely to be just as difficult.
With no fans inside Anfield to produce that special European atmosphere and a team performing at a significantly lower level than in 2019, even an away goal given to them by Mohamed Salah’s 26th in 44 Champions League matches may not be of much help.
Talk of revenge for their 2018 final defeat to Real had been banished pre-match but in truth they hardly came close to laying a glove on the 13-time champions, for whom Vinicius Junior scored twice either side of one from Marco Asensio.
Liverpool’s side had five survivors from that meeting in Kiev three years ago – Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Georginio Wijnaldum, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah – while Madrid had four.
The 2014 second-string line-up Brendan Rodgers fielded in a group-stage match in Madrid against Real, when he famously dropped Steven Gerrard in what turned out to be his final season at the club, seemed a distant memory.
However, that team of misfits – which included the likes of Lazar Markovic and Fabio Borini – performed with more composure against a full-strength Madrid in front of a full house at the Bernabeu than their 2021 counterparts did in a disastrous first half at Madrid’s Alfredo Di Stefano training ground stadium.
The hosts were missing both first-choice centre-backs in Sergio Ramos, out injured, and Raphael Varane, who returned a positive Covid-19 test on the day of the game, but that barely mattered as Liverpool were so poor they were not tested.
And Klopp’s gamble of handing Naby Keita only his second European start of the season with the intention of him running at Real backfired as the Guinea midfielder was replaced by Thiago Alcantara before half-time with the midfield in disarray.
Klopp had said his selection was based on the fact he “could not avoid any longer” Keita’s training performances but this display would have had the German looking the other way.
Real never allowed Liverpool to settle into a rhythm with Vinicius, whose pace was a problem, heading an early chance just wide.
Klopp’s plan had been to hassle and harry their hosts but they never got into their stride and when they were not busy chasing the ball they were giving it straight back to their opponents.
The one time they did not press high Toni Kroos dropped deep to loft a 50-yard pass into the path of Vinicius, who controlled on his chest with his first touch and dispatched past Alisson Becker with his second.
Liverpool tried their own quick ball forward to release Mane and although the Senegal international went down on the edge of the area after a tangle with Lucas Vazquez, referee Felix Brych waved play on.
Twenty seven seconds later the ball was in the net at the other end as Madrid regained possession and hit back with a sucker punch.
Kroos immediately launched another ambitious ball down the left channel from deep which Alexander-Arnold inexplicably headed into the path of Asensio who lobbed over Alisson.
Keita departed, Thiago arrived but still the errors continued with Ozan Kabak’s mis-hit backpass presenting Asensio with a chance he rolled wide of the far post.
Liverpool got the start – and the away goal – they wanted in the second half with Salah blasting home via the arm of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois after Wijnaldum had driven forward from midfield and Diogo Jota had forced his way into the penalty area.
Jota headed wide a raking cross from Alexander-Arnold, whose last-ditch interception prevented Asensio scoring on a counter-attack from a Liverpool corner.
However, it was only delaying the inevitable as Vinicius swung the tie in Real’s favour, shooting through the legs of Nat Phillips with Alisson only able to help the ball into the net after defenders stood off him.