Liverpool ended the quarter-final first leg with a defeat to Real Madrid, but one which could have been worse – and with a potentially important away goal scored.
Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool
Champions League Quarter-Final 1st Leg, Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano
April 6, 2021
Goals: Vinicius Jr 27′ 65′, Asensio 36′; Salah 52′
Two big calls
Jurgen Klopp had two decisions to make for this starting line-up: who would be the third midfielder, and which of Jota or Firmino would start.
The latter was made easier by recent scoring form, so the Portuguese forward being in the side was no surprise, but it certainly was a shock to see Naby Keita return to the starting XI after precisely 42 minutes on the pitch in the past month.
If there were those wondering if the decisions would pay off, they had their answers before half-time: Keita subbed off after 42 minutes and none of the front three having more than 20 touches in the first 45.
And despite that, was the scoreline at that stage really anything to do with Klopp’s calls?
Arguably not, as the hauled-off No. 8 was a million miles away from being the only player to fall short of standards and the restored Jota was involved in the goal right after the restart.
Forget questions of tactics, team selections, reinventing the wheel or anything else, from the first minute this was a very simple case of those in Red making woeful errors on and off the ball.
Trent Alexander-Arnold made a big error for Real’s second goal, but it was about his fifth misjudgement of the night.
Passes were going astray, headers were mistimed, tackles were missed entirely.
The press was… well, it existed, but only in mechanical, individual form, once or twice on the centre-backs – but then when there was no press, neither was there dropping off to be deep and compact.
With no pressure on the ball and open space in and around the defensive line, there was one and only one inevitable outcome: Toni Kroos running the show.
Liverpool caused their own problems as well as letting Real Madrid make more and only a two-goal deficit was about as good as the Reds could have asked for.
Tonight, zero. Before that: one, one, five, two, zero.
Those are the Reds’ shots on target tallies across the last few weeks in the first half, with the second leg against Leipzig the outlier there.
By and large, even in games we’ve been the better side in like against Arsenal, the team simply hasn’t clicked into gear in the final third until well into the game.
And shots on target are only part of the equation: actual first-half goals have been at a real premium, with stoppage-time goals against Wolves and Spurs all we have to show since our FA Cup exit in January, when Salah scored at United.
We also netted one in the first half against Villa’s kids, which means in the last 20 matches of all kinds against all types of opposition, Jurgen’s Reds have scored precisely four goals in the opening 45 minutes.
Any chance of that infamous fast start reappearing at some stage so we don’t give ourselves a big second-half headache to solve every week?
Decent and… not
Let’s talk individuals, then.
Who had a full-on, bona fide ‘good’ game? Nobody, really. Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak did well individually at times, but not at others. Mo got his goal, but lost the ball very easily with frequency, and so on.
At the other end of the scale, this was a stand-out game in a negative sense for Sadio Mane, who was well off the pace, lost possession constantly and never looked a goal threat.
It might be simplistic to simply say he looked knackered – and Gini Wijnaldum, too – but it’s at least partly the truth, as the explosive edge to his game isn’t there.
Alisson didn’t cover himself in glory with the second or third goals, Fabinho was nowhere near his excellent best and Jota was largely peripheral, other than for the goal and a couple of other moments.
Sadly, after a massive weekend performance, Trent was probably bottom of the pile on the night, with so many poor passes, the error for the goal, a yellow card for dissent and several fouls given away.
Best sort out Anfield, then
We’ve just had a run of four games on the road, so to speak: three away fixtures and a ‘home’ game at the Puskas. Three were won, building confidence, before this reality check in Madrid.
But now it’s back to Anfield, the once-impenetrable fortress which went approaching four years of being impossible for opposition to win at…and has now seen the home side fail to win in eight there.
Our last Anfield match was the defeat to Fulham one month ago, our sixth straight loss there, so the season hinges now on one simple factor: sorting out that home form.
Three of our next four are at Anfield – Villa, Real and Newcastle, plus Leeds away – and there’s simply no room for error.
Lose out in any couple of those and the Reds may be out of both this year’s Champions League and next’s.
There is simply no room for a mental block, for superstition, for questions of Anfield’s absent atmosphere or anything else whatsoever.
Two cliches of the football world are utterly and entirely true from this point on: this is the business end of the season and results are all that matter.