Real Madrid Will Take What Is Given
10:24 AM EST on February 22, 2023
It really looked like Liverpool had turned a corner. After two straight 2-0 wins in the Premier League, the Pool Boys came into Tuesday's Champions League round of 16 first leg against Real Madrid on fire. In a rematch of last year's final, Liverpool pressed the reigning champions all over the field, bringing a level of intensity that called back to better days, days when Liverpool was fighting against perfection, not against the mid-table of England's first division. When Darwin Núñez scored the finest goal of his Liverpool career just four minutes in, Anfield roared.
Subsequently, when Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois gifted Mohamed Salah his 42nd goal in European competition, making him Liverpool's top scorer in continental matches, it looked like 2-0 would be the magic result once again.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Real Madrid, the dark magicians of the Champions League, decided to completely ruin Liverpool's day.
Coming back from 2-0 down in the Champions League, at one of the toughest places to play in Europe, is impressive enough, but what Madrid did on Tuesday was just rude. In clawing back to equalize the game before halftime, thanks to a Vinícius Júnior brace that consisted of an incredible wondershot and a Courtoisesque boner from Liverpool's Alisson, Madrid barely broke a sweat.
Let's get this part out of the way real quick, before going back to praise Madrid: Liverpool made this too easy for the one team in Europe that you can't, under any circumstances, make it easy for. While Vinícius's first goal was an act of genius, it was Alisson's mistake in the 36th minute that served as the turning point from a comfortable Liverpool win into the 5-2 rout it became. One of Alisson's best skills as a keeper is his ability to be a safety valve with the ball at his feet, but he has had a history of trying to do too much, or risking it all while cosplaying as a ball-playing defender. He's messed it up before, but never against Madrid, in this way.
Vinícius is an incredible player, and his press here caused the goal, but pretty much any attacker playing at anything resembling a high level could have scored this goal. He didn't even have to shoot! All Vinicius did was be at the right place at the right time for the ball to get rocketed into his body, and the deflection was less a shot and more just the type of thing that happens when Madrid plays in the Champions League. The Spanish giants never panic, even when down big, and instead keep doing what they want with the knowledge that somehow, somewhere, the goals they need will be there.
And so, with the score at 2-2 on the other side of halftime, it felt over. At least it did to me, a Barcelona fan who picked Liverpool up along the way; I know how Real Madrid operates better than most. Was it surprising that Liverpool completely forgot to mark Éder Militão on an off-angle free kick in the 47th minute, giving the Madrid center back the easiest rocket header goal of his life? No, not really.
Karim Benzema's second goal on the night best exemplifies the difference between a team like Madrid and a team like Liverpool. After the Frenchman had come back into play with a sloppy deflected goal in the 55th minute to make it 4-2, Liverpool lost both its cool and its stamina, thanks to the aforementioned hyper-press and Madrid's second-gear comeback, respectively. Just 12 minutes later, Benzema found himself at the top of the box with the ball at the tail end of a counter-attack. Adrenaline can be a hell of a drug, and a dose of it there could have convinced Benzema to try and hammer the ball home through a plethora of Liverpool defenders.
Instead, though, Benzema coolly stuttered his steps, waited for both the defenders and Alisson to commit, and then finessed a shot into the side of the goal as if it were a sleepy Saturday match against Elche, and not a high-pressure Champions League match:
I'll say it again: Real Madrid players do not panic. Why would they? The veteran core of this side has won more Champions League trophies than anyone, and even the young guys won last year, thanks to a similar level of predestination and calm under pressure. Going two goals down to Liverpool is just a new obstacle for them, and it's an obstacle that they know they can overcome just by letting the game happen around them. When you have 95-year-old (citation needed) Luka Modric terrorizing the midfield and Vinícius making Trent Alexander-Arnold and, especially, Joe Gomez into his own personal traffic cones, and you still have Benzema waiting for his moments to strike after doing not much of anything, there is no situation that becomes impossible.
Now, the impossible situation shifts to the other club in this tie. Liverpool could have walked out of Anfield with a commanding lead, but instead it must conjure some magic of its own to erase a three-goal deficit at the Stadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 15. Sure, Liverpool has a history of huge Champions League comebacks, even against top Spanish opposition, but Real Madrid is the true final boss of the Champions League.
To beat Madrid across two legs, a side probably has to be as close to perfect as possible, sure, but it definitely can't be as sloppy as Liverpool was on Tuesday. Madrid just punish mistakes too well, and the champs never let off. Even after the stunning comeback, Madrid wanted more, and it got more by just playing the exact same type of game. If an opponent is going to gift opportunities to widen the gap, Madrid will gleefully take each and every one. It's what the club has always done, and Liverpool should know that better than anyone after another 2-0 lead became a 5-2 nightmare in the blink of an eye.