One way or another, it always ends with Madrid for Liverpool. Four of their last five Champions League campaigns have finished against Real, Atletico, Real and Real. In the year they didn’t face a club from the Spanish capital, they won the competition.
So, in the most unpredictable of seasons for Liverpool, this was the most predictable of exits. Not merely because Vinicius Junior is becoming Trent Alexander-Arnold’s tormentor or because Karim Benzema maintained his status as Liverpool’s nemesis with his statutory goal against them or because in the least vindictive of ways, Carlo Ancelotti continues to exact his amiable brand of revenge for Istanbul. But, primarily, because Real Madrid won 5-2 at Anfield. A 1-0 triumph in Spain took the overall score to 6-2, Liverpool’s biggest aggregate defeat in Europe since they faced Spartak Moscow three decades ago.
A second leg felt a formality. Which, as Liverpool required arguably the greatest result in their history, was unsurprising. They had overturned a three-goal deficit against a Spanish superpower in the Champions League before, but it was Barcelona, at Anfield, in 2019, when the team was at the peak of its powers. There was no 2023 version of Gini Wijnaldum or Divock Origi, no one etching his name into history, just a team toiling, an attack misfiring in front of goal, a keeper making a defiant effort that still did not spare them a 13th defeat of the campaign.
And yet because it was Liverpool, because it was Jurgen Klopp, there was the tantalising prospect it might be the night they did something special. Klopp has always used belief as a weapon. He is a specialist at turning an unprepossessing situation into an opportunity.
A one per cent chance, he had rationalised the day before, was still a chance. But, not, perhaps against Real. They were not intimidated by going 2-0 down in 14 minutes at Anfield. They certainly were not by starting with a three-goal advantage in their own backyard. The team least likely to panic did not panic. Luka Modric strolled through the game and, in three months’ time, may have won the European Cup as many times – six – as Liverpool. Real supplied the drama at Anfield, with a burst of five goals in 46 minutes, and took it out of the rematch.
Perhaps Liverpool, a diminished team in a demoralising season, did not believe enough, but it was not belief they required as much as a miracle. Eighteen years ago, in the final, they conjured one against an Ancelotti team. Spectacular comebacks have become more commonplace in the Champions League knockout stages since then. Liverpool, Tottenham, Barcelona and Roma have all staged them, improbably, gloriously. And yet Liverpool’s task was to get the ultimate comeback against the ultimate comeback kings. The team beaten at Bournemouth had to blitz the Bernabeu. They didn’t. They couldn’t. They got the same scoreline.
It was not due to a lack of boldness from the manager. Four forwards started for a team that needed a minimum of three goals. But they had too little threat and the chances fell to the wrong three; Mohamed Salah looked the sharpest and fashioned a couple of opportunities but Darwin Nunez and Diogo Jota, miscuing his shot in a season when he has not scored, missed them. Yet the fire came in the dugout, Klopp collecting Liverpool’s only caution. There was no such explosiveness in the forward line.
To make way for Jota, Klopp had replaced two midfielders with a combined age of 37 with a 37-year-old midfielder. And so, 20 years, four months and five days after his Premier League debut, James Milner captained Liverpool in the Bernabeu, in a midfield where Liverpool were outnumbered, against Modric, Toni Kroos and Eduardo Camavinga. Milner has not lasted this long without taking on a few thankless tasks but this had the air of a hospital pass to the footballing geriatric.
His was a valiant effort. When he trotted off after 72 minutes of donkeywork, his presence had nonetheless reflected twin problems. Injuries – with Jordan Henderson, Stefan Bajcetic and Thiago Alcantara all out – and a midfield that has been at the heart of Liverpool’s troubles. The timeless Modric, who is still older than Milner, remains a phenomenon, but Liverpool could do with their own Camavinga, an ambitious signing who represents the future.
On the night, as over the season, Liverpool’s best player was the man who stopped it being still worse. If the first leg had shaped up as a contest between contenders for the title of the best goalkeeper in the world, Alisson and Thibaut Courtois instead made amateurish errors. Few at Anfield believed the Brazilian had a reputation to rebuild, but magnificent saves from Vinicius Junior and Camavinga were an illustration of his quality.
Yet Liverpool’s Champions League campaign began with a damage-limitation exercise by Alisson against Napoli and ended with another against Real. And it finishes with a team who have not been in the top four all season unsure if they will return to the competition next year. It may at least be one way of avoiding elimination by the Madrid giants, though that will feel scant consolation.