Liverpool, England – It took a while for the frustration, anger and hurt to surface. For nearly an hour on Tuesday night, Liverpool fans watched in agony as their team was expertly dismantled by Real Madrid.
They urged Jürgen Klopp’s players after they squandered a two-goal lead in the first half. They stood by them as Real Madrid made it 3-2, then 4-2 and finally 5-2, the loss turned into defeat. They remained reticent as they saw their season fall apart, suffering one of the most scolding evenings in Anfield’s illustrious European history.
But then there was the pass: It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. With the match over, when the crowd started to thin out a bit, Real Madrid decided to indulge in a little game of escape. They slipped passes between and around their broken opponents. They gave them a glimpse of the ball and then pushed it away at the last minute.
They kept it going for a minute or two, and Liverpool’s players were falling behind and falling behind as they set out on a desperate quest. It was a far-fetched insult. It’s one thing to be beaten – especially by Real Madrid – and another to be made fun of. The fans started to whistle, then jeer: In Real Madrid, his players, chasing shadows, in this long miserable season.
Real Madrid’s victory at Anfield is no surprise whatsoever. This is Real Madrid after all and this is the Champions League. An exciting Real Madrid rebound is part of the package. Significantly, it is increasingly odd that anyone else would bother entering the competition.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team has perfected the comeback, turning it into an art form, and taking it at its core. On their way to European glory last season, Real Madrid generally required a full period of a draw over two legs, including extra time in the second leg, to begin the miraculous recovery that has become their calling card.
The only change this season — based on this guide — is that it’s streamlined the process so much that it now takes no more than half an hour, with a break in the middle for a quick meal.
Far more impressive than the fact that Liverpool were defeated on Tuesday, then, was their style. Somewhere in the depths of this Liverpool team lies a muscle memory of what it used to be, not all that long ago. It has only been nine months, after all, since a third Champions League final in five years was played, and Klopp is confident enough that his halcyon days will continue to get worse that he has advised his side’s fans – even in defeat – to book their hotel rooms for this. General masterpiece.
For 15 minutes, one could wonder if this stage, and that opponent, might be enough to trigger those ghosts back to life. Liverpool rose to the lead early on, thanks Innovative and bold click From Darwin Nunez, then doubled it when Thibaut Courtois forgot how to train his legs and gave the ball to Mohamed Salah. In between, Salah missed two more chances. Here, at last, were the flashes Liverpool fans have been waiting months to see.
Then dreams suddenly evaporated and reality fell. Vinicius Jr. scored an amazing goal, and then Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson gave him a second goal. It had the effect of breaking the spell. The time is midnight. Eder Militao made it third. Karim Benzema hit a ball that hit the goal for four, then danced through it, his shoes soft and his touch sure, to make it five.
Suddenly, Liverpool looked like they had been for most of the season: a mid-table Premier League side caught in the throes of an awkward and turbulent turnaround. The difference this time was that he was forced to play European Champion.
How the collapse of Liverpool happened remains a mystery until now. Thousands of words have been devoted in recent months trying to understand how a team so painstakingly formed, combined with such intellect, experience and precision, can come apart at the seams so quickly and easily. How can something so good prove so fragile in the end.
There are concrete factors that certainly seem to have contributed. Injuries did not, of course, exacerbate the failure to upgrade the midfield. The effects of last season, in which Liverpool became the first English team to play every game in every competition for which they were eligible – winning two trophies, but none remaining the two most coveted – are physical and psychological.
But then there are the intangibles, the theoretical and emotional threads, and charges that can only take the form of questions: Was Liverpool too loyal to the core of Klopp’s team? Did unrest behind the scenes, and the departure of several key members of the staff, disrupt the harmony the Club had worked so hard to foster? If so, did that have any impact on performance?
Whatever the reasons, the effects were all there, on the pitch, against a team that Liverpool less than a year ago would have – and quite rightly – considered their equals. When Klopp, when reviewing last year’s final for the first time this week, commented that it was a game his side could have won, he was simply not putting on a brave face.
For now, though, the bay is wide. The temptation is to focus on the main mistakes – Alisson’s misjudgment for the second goal, his static pointing for the third, Joe Gomez’s body form for the fourth – but it’s more telling than the little things.
It’s the speed at which Liverpool pass the ball, and it’s just a touch slower than before. It is the distances between her players, a little too great, and the coherence between her lines, now rather coarse. It is in the intensity of its pressure, softened and shaded in some way.
Each element feeds on the others, eroding trust and weakening purpose, until the entire system appears to be irreparably fractured. And at that point Real Madrid, with that air of utter self-confidence, began to pass the ball, the Liverpool players powerless to stop them, their fall from the rarefied heights they shared with these rivals complete.