As the red shirts streamed forward in the early stages at Anfield on Wednesday night, it seemed maybe, just maybe, there was another stirring European comeback on the cards for Liverpool.
James Milner set the tone with a crunching tackle on Karim Benzema after just 49 seconds. Barely a minute after that, Sadio Mane was teeing up Mohamed Salah for a chance he should have buried.
Liverpool kept on coming, creating enough opportunities to make their fans – sadly absent from the famous old stadium – believe the 3-1 deficit from the first leg would soon be reduced.
There were hearts in mouths when a Benzema shot struck the post but Liverpool were immediately back on the front foot.
Salah blasted another chance over, then Georginio Wijnaldum did the same, burying his face in his hands at his own profligacy.
“We had massive chances in the beginning of the game,” rued Jurgen Klopp afterwards. “You use one of them and it opens it up.”
Instead, Real Madrid were able to shut it down. But only after surviving a first-half blitz that was evocative of this Liverpool side as we know them best.
Even Toni Kroos, usually coolness personified, appeared ill at ease with their intensity, misplacing routine passes as Liverpool players swarmed around him and, at one point midway through the first half, even spraying a cross-field ball straight out of play.
Liverpool’s ferocious pressing had a dizzying effect on Madrid and there was even a quickly-taken corner in the opening stages – Trent Alexander-Arnold picking out the unmarked Milner in the box – which was reminiscent of their fourth and decisive goal during the 2019 comeback against Barcelona.
Sadly for Liverpool, their hopes of replicating that extraordinary night receded during the second half. Real Madrid regained their composure and brought the game back down to tempo which suited them. “They played the time down,” said Klopp with a smile.
But Liverpool did at least exit the competition looking more like themselves. “The performance in general was good, it was much better,” added Klopp. “We didn’t lose the tie tonight, we lost it in Madrid.”
“It’s disappointing,” added Milner, “because if we had played the first leg with that intensity it would have been a different story.”
It is that first-leg performance which will haunt them.
Liverpool barely laid a glove on Zinedine Zidane’s side during the first half in Madrid and even when they did pull a goal back, the hosts were able to re-establish a deserved two-goal advantage.
It was always going to be a huge ask to turn the tie around but producing a performance in line with their identity was Liverpool’s best hope of doing it and they certainly managed that.
“We did everything we wanted to do other than get the two goals,” said Milner. “You always need those key moments,” added Klopp.
Top-four focus from here on in
The challenge now, with a slimmed-down schedule containing only Premier League fixtures, is to continue in the same vein domestically.
Liverpool’s title hopes are long over but a top-four finish is not out of reach. In fact, they are only three points behind fourth-placed West Ham with seven games still to play.
“I think the most important thing is that we concentrate on our level of performance,” added Milner. “If we perform with the intensity, desire and tempo that we played with tonight for the last league games then hopefully we can get into those top-four spots.”
Their Premier League form bodes well. Liverpool have won three consecutive games in the competition – against Aston Villa, Arsenal and Wolves – for the first time since the opening weeks of the season and the opportunity is there to build momentum.
Their Monday Night Football meeting with Leeds – “leading-all-physical-stats-in-the-league Leeds,” as Klopp called them in his post-match interview – will test their stamina following their European exertions.
But victory at Elland Road could close the gap further on the teams above them and five of Liverpool’s final six games after that are against teams in the bottom half.
It is a kind run-in for a side targeting a strong finish and it is down to Liverpool to recover from their European disappointment and take advantage of it.
Important transfer window to come
It will not be easy but Wednesday’s performance showed the players are still behind Klopp and still able to perform with the energy and intensity he demands. It also underlined the need for reinforcements this summer, however.
Klopp rued the timing of his substitutions in his post-match interview, admitting they stalled Liverpool’s momentum rather than boosting it – “we lost a little bit of rhythm in that moment,” he said – but the personnel were surely the bigger issue.
Diogo Jota had some bright moments and has done plenty this season to show he has a bright future at Anfield but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri offered little and Naby Keita did not make it on at all after his poor showing in the first leg.
The midfield requires major surgery this summer and the uncertainty over Wijnaldum’s new contract only adds to the urgency.
Seven of Liverpool’s 11 starters on Wednesday night were in the team that faced Real Madrid in the 2018 final and the number would have been higher without their injuries.
The need for a refresh is obvious. Liverpool’s lack of depth has been their undoing this season and it did not help them as they searched for solutions in the second half on Wednesday night.
Indeed, while another famous European comeback appeared to be in the offing earlier on, it was more in keeping with their season that they ultimately fell short. Liverpool may yet achieve a top-four finish in the Premier League this season, but a return to the very top requires further work.