Despite all the focus being on Real Madrid’s lack of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane – and Liverpool’s subsequent return to form following a 3-0 win over Arsenal – it was Los Blancos who eased to victory in the Champions League quarter-final first leg on Tuesday night.
The tie isn’t over until the fat lady sings as they say, and the Reds still have the second leg at home to stir up a comeback, but there is plenty of work to do if they want to be within any reach of that – like, a lot.
Credit where credit is due, Real were virtually flawless. Zinedine Zidane’s side marshalled the game intelligently throughout and picked off Liverpool with expert passing, resilient defending and attacks that were beautifully threaded together.
Liverpool made it far too easy for the hosts, right from the first whistle. Jurgen Klopp’s decision to start Diogo Jota was one popular with fans, while the inclusion of Naby Keita was interesting to say the least. None of that mattered after 26 minutes, though, when one Toni Kroos long ball was enough to split the team entirely and give the hosts a 1-0 lead as Vinicius Junior fired home.
Heads went down after an already quiet start. They were seemingly too intimidated to press with their usual stinging intent and were punished as a result, with Kroos spraying passes like it was an exhibition. The problems worsened after conceding, too; the response from Liverpool was nothing short of shambolic, as nobody had the courage to pick up their side and pull them forward.
The reaction was negative, tails were quickly between legs and it took just nine minutes from the opener for Real to add a second, with an individual error from Trent Alexander-Arnold of all people gifting them a goal. Klopp’s decision to haul off Keita three minutes before half-time was telling of how he felt about their first-half performance, which set the tone for a miserable night at the office and created a mountain that was far too steep to climb.
The only positive is that it couldn’t get any worse after the break, and it didn’t. Liverpool responded with their more characteristic pressing and earned a potentially vital goal back from it, which opened up the game. Once again, however, they failed to sustain the pressure and a combination of no leadership or discipline saw Real snatch a third against the run of play.
To suggest that it is tie over would be incredibly naïve. The first leg was a telling performance of two completely different sides mentally, despite sharing some of the same struggles domestically this season. Real were fearless, calculated and tenacious, while Liverpool were sloppy, disconnected and helpless.
If they want any chance of staging a comeback in an empty Anfield, Klopp’s side has to fix up their mentality before Los Blancos arrive in England and show more urgency and desire to take the game to their opponents.