On a night of steadily deflating momentum, Jürgen Klopp’s marauding Liverpool did their best Jürgen Klopp’s marauding Liverpool impression. And for a while it was tempting to believe.
Anfield looked splendid under open blue cold skies, one of those nights when the wind comes scudding in off the sea and the place seems to boil and throb with, well, what exactly?
This time it was necessary to generate that heat from a standing start. And Liverpool did begin with that familiar precision-fury. There were deep, curving cross-field passes, back-post overloads and waspish runs from Mohamed Salah. Squint a little, drink in the startled whoops and roars of the digital crowd, and this felt almost-real.
If it turned out to be chimera this wasn’t down to a lack of attacking pressure. It is of course in other areas that Liverpool’s stitching has been showing these past three months.
The first reality check arrived on 19 minutes. Madrid broke away down the left, Karim Benzema seizing on Nathaniel Phillips’s poor touch and simply grooving away from Liverpool’s two centre-backs, who both appeared to be running through their own portable peat bog.
Is this a Champions League semi-final defence? Was this ever really a serious proposition at this stage? Phillips and Ozan Kabak are at least slow in different ways. Kabak is slow in the more muscular, controlled style. Phillips is gangly slow, moving into top gear with all the easy grace of a collapsing scaffold.
Faced with this dual pursuit Benzema turned outside, then inside, as Liverpool’s central defenders windmilled like a pair of late-right revellers on a north sea booze ferry. Nothing came of it. But it was a startling little reality check. And from there Madrid never really had to go up through their own gears.
They won this game because they have a superior defence. Never mind the star machine of the last two decades. This was about solidity, layers, and tenacious blocking and covering by a correctly staffed and brilliantly well-drilled white-shirted defence.
Zinedine Zidane? He’s a cheerleader, a backslapper, a nice suit. He stands and claps. Somehow in the course of this Zidane also finds time to instruct his back five, who made 14 tackles and 11 interceptions in this game. Éder Militão produced some fine blocks.
Casemiro racked up four tackles, six clearances, two interceptions and one studied first half lunge-reducer on Liverpool’s own ageing enforcer James Milner. And from the start it was clear Casemiro had taken a look at this game and thought, yes, OK, this is my place. Watch him and he always gravitates to the right space, offering an instant sense of balance, like the bubble in a spirit level, always returning to the centre.
Still, Liverpool will see the chances to change this narrative that went begging. They had six shots in the first half. Sadio Mané and Andy Robertson hoisted eight crosses into the Madrid box. Trent Alexander-Arnold was having an excellent game. His passing and crossing from the right, often from a stationary position, is entirely his own thing, with that rare quality of simplifying the game, making it look easy. There was one languid, backspun dink into the path of Roberto Firmino that defied categorisation, a genuinely creative piece of improvisation.
Through all this there were always obstacles, a leg in the way, a body hustling close, a white-shirted hand clamped firmly on the wrist. Did Liverpool ever really feel like they were going to score, to change the gravity in this tie? Probably. Maybe. Looking back, perhaps not.
The wider question is, does this Liverpool team really deserve to progress to the semi-finals of the Champions League? Has this club invested in its own success, been expansive in its recruitment, gambled on talent? Klopp’s coaching achievements with this group of players are, in one sense, enhanced by the meltdown in midwinter. We can see the joins now. It has been a glorious run built on a squad of genuine quality, but with no real safety net beyond. Madrid are also missing key players. But they always had other gears here.
Towards the end Marco Asensio pulled a high dropping ball out of the sky with his big toe inside the box, then simply stopped and played a pass outside. Phillips cleared the cross, falling heroically across the near post like a collapsing set of battlements. But you got the idea. Not all footballers are created equally.
And this is the thing about Madrid. They’re just so unafraid, so certain of their own version of events. Time and again very, very good players perform up to the top of their range. They will now face Chelsea in another semi‑final – and what a monument this decade-old Madrid generation has become.
Four Champions Leagues, three league titles, six different managers – through it all those grand old meringues have eased up through the gears at the right moment, playing no obvious style or “philosophy”, just a kind of Madrid-ball: high quality, fearless, big personality players doing the right things at the right moments.
This Madrid team was already a superpower before Liverpool’s star began to rise. The same group of players, more or less, has now seen off Liverpool’s own champion generation. They will not be moved.