Eradicate the mistakes, pass the ball better and Liverpool will be unrecognisable against Real Madrid next Wednesday with or without the backing of a frenzied Anfield crowd. That, at least, was Jürgen Klopp’s hope during a post-match press conference at Estadio Alfredo Di Stéfano that veered towards straw-clutching even before he mentioned Barcelona. Twice. Liverpool must transform themselves at Anfield to give substance to their manager’s flickering belief.
“With all the problems we had tonight,” the Liverpool manager said, “Real Madrid had to score at least one goal with us giving the goal away and the other goals were because of mistakes from us as well. If we don’t make these mistakes and if we play better football, both of which we can do, then it is a new game and we will see how the result will be then.”
Klopp highlighted that Liverpool performed far better when losing their Champions League semi-final first leg 3-0 at the Camp Nou two years ago than throughout the quarter-final first leg on Tuesday against Madrid, with Mohamed Salah grabbing a potentially crucial away goal. The reigning Spanish champions, however, often come alive in the knockout stages of the competition they have won 13 times, not collapse psychologically, technically and tactically like their great rivals have made a habit of doing in recent years.
Madrid schooled Liverpool at times on Tuesday. True, they were aided and abetted by a woeful first-half display from the visitors but in the execution of their gameplan, defending without three first-choice regulars, quality on the ball and escaping Liverpool’s press, Zinedine Zidane’s team were comfortably superior. The scoreline was not the only parallel with the 2018 Champions League final. As in Kyiv, Real’s ability and experience were arrogantly overlooked by many beforehand and shone through.
“Our idea was to keep the ball, keep possession and play forward,” said Toni Kroos who, along with Luka Modric and Casemiro, conducted most of the schooling at Madrid’s training complex. “All of this went well, especially when we lost the ball. We got the ball back very fast and I think that was key for a great first half.
“It’s normal that you try to figure out some points where you can attack your rival. One idea was to attack the defenders so that they could not go easily to the front where they have most of their qualities.”
Liverpool’s sloppiness in possession was the recurring theme of Klopp’s post-match analysis. “If you only lose one ball it could happen against Real Madrid, but we lost too many,” he said of the second goal. “The problem was that we gave the ball away too easily,” was his take on the ineffectiveness of Liverpool’s gameplan.
The manager’s criticism was legitimate and it appears an affront to the eyesight to discover Liverpool’s passing accuracy was marginally better than Madrid’s. But there it is in Uefa’s official match report: Liverpool 87% (539 of 622 attempted passes completed) and Madrid 86% (447 of 522 attempted passes completed). More telling, however, is the fact that most of Liverpool’s combinations in a toothless performance featuring one shot on target were between Nat Phillips and Trent Alexander-Arnold. A total of nine attempted tackles by Liverpool’s team, substitutes included, is equally revealing. Casemiro alone made eight.
The focus on unforced errors during the game does not detract from the one that Klopp made with his team selection. Naby Keïta over Thiago Alcântara was a bewildering choice from the outset, not with the benefit of hindsight, with the Guinea international having started one previous game in the Champions League this season and disappointing throughout an injury-plagued Liverpool career. The idea was to have “dribblers, people who can turn, make the next situation a big advantage”, said Klopp, but the reality was Liverpool’s energy was easily nullified by the brains and footwork of the 35-year-old Modric, the 31-year-old Kroos and the 29-year-old Casemiro.
Klopp claimed he disliked the part of his job that involved hooking Keïta after 42 minutes, thereby inflating the midfielder’s responsibility for a bad team performance. If that was the case he could have made the switch at half-time to lessen Keïta’s public embarrassment. Either way there is no escaping the conclusion that at £52.75m and with a lucrative five-year contract, he is a rare but expensive transfer error and time is surely ticking on his Anfield career.
Roberto Firmino’s absence was felt as an uninhibited Kroos enjoyed the freedom of his own half to bend Liverpool to his will, although Diogo Jota had merited inclusion with a potent return from injury. It seems safe to assume Firmino and Thiago will not be on the bench next Wednesday.
A 2-0 home win would take Liverpool into the semi-finals and is clearly not beyond a Premier League champion club with a history of European comebacks and rare Champions League pedigree. But this is not Anfield as we know it and Real Madrid, as they will proudly attest, are not Barcelona.
Salah’s penalty in the 4-1 defeat by Manchester City on 7 February is the only goal Liverpool have scored at Anfield in 2021, a year that has yielded 10 defeats in 19 games and an unprecedented run of six consecutive losses at Anfield. As Georginio Wijnaldum conceded: “It’s not impossible, as we’ve shown in previous years, but it’s difficult.”
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