Vinicius Junior scored twice as Real Madrid beat Liverpool for a fourth successive time in the Champions League to take a 3-1 aggregate lead in their quarter-final tie.
Shorn of first-choice defenders Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, Madrid took the game to Liverpool from the off in the first meeting between the sides since the 2018 final, exposing the Reds’ own defensive frailties.
Vinicius opened the scoring from Toni Kroos’ exceptional pass and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s error nine minutes later led to Marco Asensio making it 2-0.
Mohamed Salah snatched a potentially crucial away goal for Liverpool, but Vinicus’ second ensured a first-leg lead for the 13-time European champions.
Alexander-Arnold’s issues started with a sloppy pass in the 24th minute, Ozan Kabak sparing his team-mate’s blushes by blocking Karim Benzema’s route to goal.
Liverpool’s luck soon ran out. Having spotted a gap between Alexander-Arnold and Nathaniel Phillips, Kroos dropped an inch-perfect pass onto the chest of Vinicius, who took it brilliantly in his stride before drilling home.
Sadio Mane was left furious not to have been awarded a free-kick for a barge from Lucas Vazquez, and Liverpool’s anger was compounded from the subsequent Madrid attack as Alexander-Arnold headed directly into the path of Asensio, who coolly nudged it over Alisson to finish into an empty net.
With Asensio spurning another gift-wrapped opportunity, Jurgen Klopp turned to Thiago Alcantara to replace Naby Keita before half-time, and Liverpool restored parity six minutes after the restart, Salah on hand to tuck in after latching onto a deflected shot.
121 – Since Mohamed Salah made his debut for Liverpool, only Cristiano Ronaldo (140), Lionel Messi (156) and Robert Lewandowski (177) have scored more goals than the Egyptian (121) across all competitions within the top five European leagues. Example. pic.twitter.com/kWK5R56RUh
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 6, 2021
After Diogo Jota headed wide, Ferland Mendy made a perfectly timed challenge to deny Sadio Mane, and Alexander-Arnold was needed to make a similarly vital intervention at the other end to cut out Asensio’s pass to Vinicius.
Vinicius would not be denied his second, however, and his low shot was soon helped into the corner by Alisson to restore Madrid’s two-goal cushion ahead of next week’s second leg.
What does it mean? Reds have hope but depleted Madrid show their class
Even with Ramos and Varane missing, Liverpool failed to register a single attempt on goal in the opening 45 minutes of a Champions League tie for the first time since 2014 (also against Madrid).
This was Zinedine Zidane’s 50th game as a coach in the Champions League and his 31st win.
But Salah’s 121st Liverpool goal has provided the Reds – no strangers to famous European comebacks – with a lifeline heading back to Anfield.
Vinicius comes to the fore
Exploiting the space behind Liverpool’s high line, Vinicius was at his very best in a fantastic individual display.
With his opener, he became – aged 20 years and 268 days – the second-youngest scorer for Madrid in a Champions League knockout match, after Raul (18y 253d) in 1996 against Juventus.
And only Kylian Mbappe, just 18 against Borussia Dortmund in April 2017, has scored a Champions League brace in the quarter-finals or later at a younger age.
Defensive lapses leave Liverpool reeling
Alexander-Arnold – the centre of much media furore following his omission from England’s latest squad – was superb at Arsenal on Saturday, leading Liverpool in crosses (seven), interceptions (three) and key passes (four).
But concerns over the 22-year-old’s defensive abilities were again shown to have some grounding on Wednesday. Fortunate to get away with a slack pass straight to Benzema, he was punished for switching off moments later when Vinicius opened the scoring, and it was his inexplicable header to Asensio which gifted Madrid a second, though he improved after the break.
Kabak and Phillips looked out of their depth alongside the right-back, while Alisson should have done far better to prevent Vinicius doubling his tally.
Key Opta Facts
– Madrid have progressed from 15 of their past 16 Champions League knockout ties after winning the opening leg, only failing to do so against Ajax in the 2018-19 last 16.
– Only teams from Spain (14) have progressed from more Champions League knockout ties after losing the first leg than sides from England (12), with Liverpool the most recent English club to do so, against Barcelona in the 2018-19 semi-finals.
– In all European competition, no side has beaten Liverpool more often than Madrid (four, level with Benfica), with the Reds suffering defeat in each of the past four encounters with Los Blancos.
– Salah has now scored 27 goals this season, four more than he managed last season, while equalling his tally from 2018-19. Only in 2017-18 (44) did he score more for Liverpool in a single campaign.
– Benzema has now appeared in 108 Champions League matches for Madrid – the outright most by a non-Spaniard, with only Iker Casillas (150), Raul (130) and Ramos (128) playing more for the club in the competition.
– Asensio has scored in four straight matches for Madrid in all competitions, managing as many goals over this period as he did across his previous 41 matches (four).
It is the small matter of El Clasico up next for Madrid, who are engaged in a three-way LaLiga title tussle, before Los Blancos travel to Anfield on April 14. Liverpool host Aston Villa on Saturday, meanwhile.