It’s far from over, but Real Madrid have gained a substantial advantage over Liverpool in the Champions League quarterfinals with a deserved first-leg win at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium on Tuesday. Vinicius Junior latched onto a great pass from Toni Kroos to open the scoring in the 27th minute, Marco Asensio took advantage of a blunder by Trent Alexander-Arnold to double the score in the 36th, Mohamed Salah capped off a good spell from the visitors and gave his team some hope in the 51st, but Vinicius rounded off a good display by setting the final score in the 65th.
Klopp’s failed experiment
Liverpool’s lineup, when announced ahead of kick-off, raised a few eyebrows. Compared to the triumph against Arsenal a few days before, the inclusion of Georginio Wijnaldum ahead of James Milner was to be expected, and Diogo Jota starting in the place of Roberto Firmino was no surprise either. But the reasons behind naming Naby Keita instead of Thiago Alcantara in the starting XI remain known only to manager Jurgen Klopp, especially as the Guinean hadn’t played much this season, having struggled with injuries and completed 90 minutes only twice in all competitions.
The Guinean wasn’t exactly Liverpool’s worst player during the 41 minutes he spent on the pitch before Klopp moved to rectify the situation; others played surprisingly poorly, most notably Alexander-Arnold and Wijnaldum whose wayward passing gave the ball away on numerous occasions, and the high-quality players in white shirts were only too happy to pounce on those mistakes. Liverpool’s midfield didn’t have any shape or clear direction, they didn’t seem to know what to do, either with the ball or without it, which is highly unusual for Klopp’s team.
The moments preceding the two first-half goals were particularly strange. Under Klopp, Liverpool have always been a pressing team, never allowing the opposition playmakers to turn, let alone pick a pass, but the amount of space and time Kroos had before whipping his trademark passes in those situation proved unforgivable.
Things looked quite different with Thiago on the pitch, however. Liverpool were finally able to stifle the hosts and push them way back after the break, and they quickly pulled one back through a brave run from Jota and alertness of Mohamed Salah. But the problem from their point of view was that the most of the damage was already done, and playing against a Real defending a lead is easier said than done. In the end, they could have gotten a better result from this game, but it could also have been much worse.
The bottom line when this match is concerned is, Real Madrid are simply too good and too experienced not to win when their opponents aren’t at their best, and Liverpool certainly weren’t. Give Kroos the time and space and he will create chances; special attacking ideas must be designed and executed to perfection if Casemiro is to be gotten past, and long years of top-level performances have proven that Luka Modric is among the best midfielders in the world.
It was a truly fantastic display from the 35-year-old Croatia international. Despite his age, he spent the full 90 minutes on the pitch, looking perfectly fresh throughout, even when most of his teammates were notably getting tired towards the end. He defended, he stopped opposition runs and dribbles, intercepted passes, read the game like an open book, and his contribution to the final goal was crucial. The way he turned into the box, out of the defenders’ reach, was a touch of genius. From there it wasn’t too difficult to make the right decision and assist Vinicius, but getting into positions from where things look easy is often the mark of great players.
Karim Benzema has been on great form lately and though he didn’t get on the scoresheet himself this time, his movements were as useful as ever, getting the defenders confused and out of position, and opening the space needed for Vinicius and Asensio to shine.
At the back, it perhaps wouldn’t be fair to talk about the team missing captain Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, and even Dani Carvajal on the right flank, given that Liverpool have been without Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip for most of the season. But Eder Militao took charge of the line and dealt with practically everything that came his way, with Nacho putting in a fine performance as well by his side.
It’s quite obvious that the Spanish giants have a big advantage over the Premier League champions and are much closer to the semifinals, but the job isn’t done yet. They won’t have to fear the Anfield noise which helped bring down Barcelona two years ago in a spectacular fashion, but Liverpool clearly showed that they can outplay Real in certain periods of the game, and if they can sort out their mistakes and keep at the same level throughout the second leg, it could be very interesting.
In any case, the rematch is certain to be tense from the start, with a potential early goal either way sure to make a huge impact on further proceedings. Nerves will be one of the key aspects, as they were in this game as well.
Also, it’s important to say that Real welcome Barcelona on Saturday, and the game against their domestic arch-rivals set between the two legs of this quarterfinal is likely to leave its mark. Given the situation in the La Liga table, Zinedine Zidane isn’t likely to rest anyone in ‘El Clasico’ – he will need all hands on deck if they don’t want to go five points behind the Catalans, and potentially six behind Atletico Madrid, with eight matches remaining. It would reduce their chances of keeping the title they won last season significantly.
Liverpool, meanwhile, play Aston Villa this weekend, and they will be keen to win that one given that Dean Smith’s team simply annihilated them at Villa Park earlier this season. They will also be doing their best not to allow the hard work and fortunes of the previous round to go to waste as they chase top-four placement in the Premier League.