Vinícius Júnior double for Real Madrid punishes careless Liverpool in first leg
There is no anger left from 2018, Jürgen Klopp insisted, but there must be from this match. Some things have changed since Real Madrid and Liverpool last met, in the 2018 Champions League final in Kiev, yet the result remained the same. Two goals from Vinícius Júnior and one from Marco Asensio inflicted another 3-1 defeat and if there is still a chance to turn this tie around at Anfield, this season has proven that it is not the same without the fans. And on this evidence, there is little to grab hold of.
That night, the Spanish side won a record third Champions League in a row; since then, they have twice fallen during the knockout stages, while Liverpool have been English and European champions, but defender Nacho Fernandez had warned that there is something about Madrid in this competition, and so it proved. It was not just the score, it was the sense Zinedine Zidane’s team were always beyond their reach, even when Mohamed Salah scored the goal that momentarily gave Liverpool hope, and during the final minutes when they sought something to hold on to.
Klopp said this was not a revenge mission; redemption looks unlikely too. Madrid may be older now, but they can still play and there is an enviable expertise about them, a sense that Europe is theirs. In Vinícius, there is youth too, a 20-year-old often accused of not scoring enough but who this time got two.
If Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale were significant absentees, and injuries reduced the representation from that night in Kiev to four men from Madrid, they are some players: Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema soon took control of this, the absence of Sergio Ramos, Raphaël Varane and Dani Carvajal from the defence largely unnoticed. Liverpool rarely got close enough to truly test the men who replaced them. At the other end it was a different story. Modric went over appealing for a penalty. Vinícius headed just wide and later had to be blocked by Ozan Kabak, who was then quick to deny Benzema.
The Brazilian Vinícius was alive, the outlet on the left, until he was the answer in the middle. Kroos dropped to the right, deep inside his own half, allowed to receive. If that felt unwise, it was only after the event. No one could imagine that he would deliver a pass quite like this, except perhaps Kroos himself, and also Vinícius who was already up and running. Kroos struck a long diagonal delivery that speared 40, 50 yards and dropped between Kabak and Philips and on to Vinícius’s chest with a precision that was almost absurd and yet still asked a lot from his teammate.
Vinícius controlled, stepped between the red shirts, and stuck the ball low into the net beyond Alisson. Vinícius has often stood accused of lacking the efficiency to go with his electricity, but the finish here was impeccable. Almost as impeccable, in fact, as the one that Marcos Asensio provided nine minutes later. Again, it was a Kroos delivery, but the “assist” this time came from Trent Alexander-Arnold, who headed straight into the path of Asensio. With Alisson coming off his line, he lifted the ball gently over the keeper, stepped past and put the ball into the net. From Madrid’s fans there was a roar, from Klopp there was remonstration for a foul on Sadio Mané a moment before.
There was no hiding the reality though, no excuse for this. And a moment later Asensio almost got another, Liverpool again setting it up for their opponents. Kabak this time was at fault, but the shot slipped past the far post. Liverpool had been passive, now they were just poor, falling to pieces. Madrid not only had control but an awareness that this was an opportunity to end it. Klopp had sensed it too, sending Thiago Alcântara on to try to get a hold of the game.
By half time, Madrid had taken nine shots, starting with Benzema in the second minute. Liverpool had taken none. Only once had they even looked likely to concern Madrid, and Keita had been closed down then.
If Madrid’s regret was that the lead was only two, that deepened when Georginio Wijnaldum set off five minutes into the second half. Running from deep on the right, he carried the ball all the way to the edge of the area and found Diogo Jota. The shot was deflected but it fell at the feet of Salah, who managed to nudge it past Thibaut Courtois. Liverpool were alive, Alexander-Arnold immediately delivering a super cross for Jota to head just wide. Madrid reasserted themselves and took a degree of control again, but the match felt different now.
A moment later a swift move begun by Thiago saw Jota and Andrew Robertson combine to create an opportunity for Mané on the edge of the six yard box, only for Ferland Mendy to make a superb interception. Liverpool remain easily opened, though. A Courtois roll, a Benzema pass and Asensio was clean through. That chance wasn’t taken, but the next was and again they were largely unopposed. It came from a throw, Benzema turning the ball to Modric who stepped into the area and fed Vinícius. He swept a low shot into the bottom corner for his second goal.
More could have followed too, Asensio almost escaping Alisson and Benzema’s low shot stopped by Alison. Madrid had taken a dozen shots, Alexander-Arnold getting increasingly frustrated by the job that Vinícius was doing on him. Benzema, meanwhile, quietly continued playing the way that only he does, always out of reach, always in control. Perhaps inevitably, though, obligation imposed a shift in the pattern, Liverpool pushing for the goal that would change the complexion of the tie. And yet genuine chances were few and when Thiago did get space his shot sailed on to the bank behind the goal.
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