Jürgen Klopp claimed a reunion with Real Madrid would not provoke harrowing memories of his last meeting.
Sadly for the Liverpool manager, the reminders were inescapable. The date changed, the venue was different, but it was the same sobering scoreline as in the Champions League final three years ago.
Maybe the sight of those iconic white shirts sent Klopp’s players into post-traumatic stress as they reconstructed the calamitous defensive errors which gifted the Spaniards the European Cup in Kiev.
All three Real goals in their 3-1 victory were avoidable, a couple of unspectacular long balls responsible for two before half-time, then Alisson Becker allowed a routine effort to evade him in a manner more befitting of Loris Karius. Vinicius Jr’s two goals allowed him to fill the Gareth Bale role, Marco Asensio striking the other.
As in 2018, Liverpool even indulged in a first half substitution, although this was tactical rather than enforced. Klopp’s enduring trust in Naby Keita proved to be as misplaced as the midfielder’s many misdirected passes.
“I could have taken many off,” admitted Klopp, underlining how dire the opening 45 minutes were.
At least Mohamed Salah ensured the echoes of 2018 did not extend to the premature curtailment of his influence. He scored what may yet prove a critical away goal. Unlike the last fixture between the clubs, Liverpool also have a week rather than a year to get this out of their system. Never mind replaying the game, Klopp would be best advised to give his players a crash course on the true meaning of revenge.
When Klopp said payback was not on his mind when Liverpool were paired with Madrid, anyone remembering his demeanour on the evening of his lowest point at the club presumed he had to be joking.
Evidently his players took those comments too literally. This quarter-final began akin to a surrender, Liverpool a shadow of the side which recently threatened a revival.
Some of the recollections to Kiev extended beyond Real’s on-field class. For all their success and grandeur, has any team in recent European history ever been so underestimated as the multi-Champions League winning Real Madrid side?
In the build-up to the Ukrainian final, there was so much focus on the pain Liverpool’s strike trio was going to inflict on a side apparently past its peak, few seemed to consider the possibility that the established superstars would put the novices in their place.
There was a similar tone of disrespect to Zidane’s injury-hit side pre-match here, if not within the Liverpool party, certainly among neutrals. Dare one say it even manifested itself in Klopp’s team selection?
Real Madrid were perceived as ageing, short of energy, and ready to be swatted aside if Liverpool moved into and stayed in fifth gear. So Klopp overlooked the claims of Thiago – a midfielder surely born for this stage of Europe – and instead favoured Keita, believing that would give his midfield the upperhand to outrun the Madrid central trio.
“I could not ignore his performances in training,” said the coach.
Neither could he ignore an abysmal 44 minutes after which Keita was hooked, Klopp with no choice but to acknowledge his selection error. Thiago belatedly appeared and the salvage operation began.
By then Liverpool were two down and lucky to still harbour hopes of a reprieve in the second half and ultimately second leg.
Real looked more savvy, experienced, and comfortable with the status of the fixture.
Zidane is also more tactically astute than he is generally credited, identifying the way to expose Liverpool’s frailties was to pass long over their high backline. Both first half goals came from that source.
Vinicius pounced upon Tony Kroos ‘sdiagonal as Alexander-Arnold failed to shadow the run. The 27th-minute finish was venomous.
Alisson had not had much to do until then, but he sensed what was coming given the ease with which Madrid moved back to front.
Alexander-Arnold was culpable for the second, misdirecting a header to Asensio, who accepted the present. Liverpool’s performance to that point was shambolic.
Klopp and his backroom staff could only look on in disbelief, consoled by the fact they could not play any worse. They had barely strung a pass together for 45 minutes.
The immediate response after the break suggested every mirror in the visitors’ dressing room had been fixed with a hard stare.
It took them five more minutes to claim an away goal, Diogo Jota’s first meaningful contribution leading to a ricocheted shot falling to Salah. He was composed enough to finish. Finally, Liverpool looked like Liverpool and Real’s defence was nervous as Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson began attacking wide areas.
Jota could have equalised on 62 minutes when he instead tried to tee up Sadio Mane. But now the game was frantically end-to-end, Klopp having to calculate whether escaping with a narrow defeat was preferable to risking further punishment for an equaliser.
It is not in Klopp’s nature to hold back, and in the gung-ho atmosphere his side suffered again on 65 minute, Alisson failing to keep out Vinicius’ low but stoppable drive.
Zidane then had the luxury of trying to restore order by telling his side to retreat and counter-attack. Klopp made a final attempt to restore chaos by sacrificing a centre-back and sending on Xherdan Shaqiri and Roberto Firmino. That smacked of desperation.
Now another of those memorable European Anfield comebacks is necessary. Without the Kop, this time they will have to do with 11 men.
- The Telegraph