Liverpool will look to their Champions League history as they clutch at the straws left behind from a brutal 5-2 demolition by Real Madrid – but reality dictates this particular miracle may be beyond them.
If last season’s Champions League final in Paris was a tight affair that could have gone either way before Vinicius Junior struck, this was an Anfield evisceration – a moment of history of the wrong sort for Liverpool.
The atmosphere before kick-off was thunderous, anticipation at the arrival of the holders with revenge in mind heightened by the understandable determination of Liverpool’s fans to register their disgust at Uefa after it initially blamed supporters for the chaos at the Stade de France in May.
The Champions League anthem was jeered at deafening volume while a banner emblazoned with the words “Uefa Liars” took pride of place right at the front of The Kop.
All looked on course when Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah put Liverpool 2-0 up inside 14 minutes while manager Jurgen Klopp was fist-pumping at the stands to whip up the fervour.
In the closing minutes, with Liverpool dispatched by Carlo Ancelotti’s brilliantly ruthless team, the voices of players could be heard shouting to each other while Klopp stood crestfallen and motionless with his hands in his pockets.
Liverpool had conceded five goals in Europe at Anfield for the first time and in the closing stages it was Real who looked like adding to their tally rather than conceding a third.
Here is the part when we invoke another, more palatable, part of Liverpool’s history.
Remember the Champions League semi-final in 2019 when Liverpool famously over-turned a 3-0 first leg deficit against Barcelona at Anfield? Expect to hear that mentioned again before the second leg.
There are, however, significant differences.
Real Madrid are steelier than that flaky Barcelona side. Liverpool are nowhere near the Liverpool of 2019 and the second leg of this last-16 tie is being played at the Bernabeu, not in front of The Kop.
Liverpool made the sort of start that has become their Anfield trademark in the Champions League with those two early goals, but once Real got a foothold in this game, the cracks seen in Klopp’s side all season were exposed in a midfield completely overrun and a frail defence prone to expensive errors.
Recent victories against Everton and Newcastle United hinted at a Liverpool renaissance, in the Premier League at least, but suspicions still lurked about whether all their ills had been cured.
After all, Newcastle carved out plenty of chances and Reds goalkeeper Alisson was outstanding in a 2-0 win on Tyneside. Real were never going to be as wasteful in front of goal.
Vinicius’ first goal was a piece of individual brilliance with a stunning finish, but Alisson was at fault when he hacked a clearance straight at the Brazilian to allow Real to equalise.
Real oozed class and control while Liverpool subsided, Ancelotti poker-faced and cool in his technical area as Anfield was reduced to silence.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, who had a tough night against Vinicius, switched off along with the rest of the defence as Eder Militao was allowed to trot unmarked on to the end of Luka Modric’s free-kick to put Real in front.
That was effectively that. Game over. Real never looked back.
Joe Gomez’s grim night was summed up by the misfortune of deflecting Karim Benzema’s shot past Allison to make it four, and worse was to come.
Liverpool’s defence was poor but their midfield has offered little protection this season. It would have still been galling for the disbelieving home fans to see 37-year-old Modric speed away from the labouring Fabinho and shrug off Stefan Bajcetic in the lead up to Benzema’s fifth and final goal.
Fabinho and Jordan Henderson were powerless when faced with the movement and strength of not just Modric – applauded warmly by Liverpool’s fans when he was substituted in the closing seconds – but also Federico Valderde and Eduardo Camavinga.
Liverpool’s midfield is in urgent need of attention and renewal. Klopp will know that but this tortuous 90 minutes will crystallise that thought.
Real ended the game to the sound of “Oles” from the visiting supporters. Their Liverpool counterparts, in sharp contrast, were in shock.
Real are a truly remarkable side. Their concrete self-belief was on show last season when they survived a scare against Chelsea and somehow conjured up two goals in injury time to rescue, then win, the semi-final against Manchester City.
Liverpool’s opening two-goal burst would have finished lesser sides but Real, with Modric the great manipulator, Benzema a constant menace and Vinicius close to unstoppable, simply carried on as if nothing had happened.
They possess remarkable endurance, resilience and mental strength shaped by the success that make them the most decorated club in this competition’s history.
Liverpool have been looking to settle a score with Real since the 2018 Champions League final defeat in Kyiv – Salah’s injury after a tangle with Sergio Ramos a lingering source of bitterness – but this is a hurdle they struggle to overcome, having lost to the Spaniards in the quarter-final in 2021 and in last season’s final.
Klopp and Liverpool will not think it is over and nor should they given their form for overturning seemingly insurmountable odds.
This Liverpool team, however, is flawed in a way that makes that outcome unlikely, not least against the utterly unforgiving nature of this Real Madrid side.
If Liverpool pull this one off then it can rank alongside any comeback they have achieved in Europe.